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Holiday travel, COVID vaccine boosters and more from BRHD

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The COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt holiday planning in 2021, with several key differences from 2020. Jason Elliott, public information officer with the Blue Ridge Health District, recently provided some answers to frequently asked questions about the progress of the pandemic, safety in holiday planning, vaccines and boosters.

“I think one of the biggest differences is that with the increase in vaccinations, we are able to actually gather,” he said. “In the past, it’s all been virtual; it’s all been postponed; it’s all been canceled. This year, we have the opportunity to do these little things that make gathering with our loved ones possible. … Through these vaccinations, we’re able to actually sit around the table instead of a computer for Zoom.”

Although this holiday season certainly offers more options for celebrating this year, it’s still important to stay safe from COVID-19—and from the flu and other illnesses as well.

“Any time we have large gatherings or large groups of people, we run the risk of seeing an increase in numbers,” Elliott said. “That’s why we really are encouraging people to be fully vaccinated and to continue with those mitigation strategies like masks and distancing and being outdoors—because we want to prevent any of those rises.”

COVID by the numbers

Greene County saw a massive spike in cases, hospitalizations and deaths in September and October of this year that outpaced even the much-talked-about holiday spike following last Christmas. One-day totals of 39 new cases on Sept. 17 and 37 on Sept. 23 are double the highest single-day total of 19 cases on Jan. 8 and 25. Twenty-two Greene County residents died from the virus between Sept. 8 and Nov. 17, 2021—that is half of the total deaths attributed to the virus since it claimed its first Greene County victim in April 2020.

As of Nov. 29, Greene County (Population 20,552) has seen 2,334 cases, 135 hospitalizations and 45 deaths due to the virus. Nearby Louisa County (Pop. 37,596) has seen 3,524 cases, 151 hospitalizations and 53 deaths. Fluvanna (Pop. 27,249) has had 2,941 cases, 119 hospitalizations and 28 deaths. Nelson County (Pop. 14,775) reports a total of 1,449 cases, 59 hospitalizations and 20 deaths. In Albemarle (Pop. 112,395) there have been 8,486 cases, 332 hospitalizations and 110 deaths. The city of Charlottesville (Pop. 46,553) has seen 5,525 cases with 148 hospitalized and 62 fatalities. Population numbers are from the 2020 census.

Statewide, the spike in cases was much higher in January due to holiday gatherings and travel than that seen in September—which has been attributed in large part to the more contagious Delta variant that now comprises the majority of new cases in the U.S. Across the country, more than 48 million individuals have tested positive for COVID-19; 776,000 have died.

COVID-19 vaccinations

The biggest difference between the winter holidays last year to now is that vaccines from three manufacturers—Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson—are readily available at pharmacies, doctors offices and health departments throughout the nation.

“First and foremost is vaccines—that is the number one thing that any of us can do for (the holidays) or any day to make sure it’s a little safer and healthier,” Elliott said. “Things like wearing masks are still recommended if we’re going to be in close proximity with people; and, of course, washing our hands is very important—not only just because we’re prepping food, but because we’ve got COVID going around.”

As of Nov. 23, 63.6% of residents in the Blue Ridge Health District are fully vaccinated and 19.8% have had their booster shot or third dose. Greene County comes in a little below the district average with 59.8% fully vaccinated.

While it can be controversial or socially awkward to ask a loved one about their vaccination status, Elliott recommends communicating expectations during holiday planning by sharing how you plan to protect yourself and others (by masking up, staying physically distant or limiting time spent in enclosed spaces) and why.

“Communicating what our expectations are, what our comfort zone might be … helps other people be informed,” Elliott said. “Whatever you need to do to stay healthy mentally and physically. If you’re sick or if you’re still in that quarantine time—or if you’re simply uneasy—it’s OK to delay the festivities. It’s OK to Zoom in or to FaceTime and there’s nothing wrong with waiting until the time is right for everyone to get together in a healthy way.”

As for those who have already had the virus, the health district and the CDC still recommend getting a vaccine when you’re able.

“One of the things to keep in mind is that we’re still learning a lot about natural immunity, especially how long that lasts,” Elliott said. “We may see that some people have a longer natural immunity after infection than others, and that’s why the magic question is, ‘If I had COVID, do I still need to be vaccinated?’ And the answer is yes, because we don’t know exactly how long that’s going to last and how potent that immunity is going to be. Making sure that we’re using every avenue for getting people that immunity is really important.”

What’s the deal with the vaccine boosters?

On Nov. 19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that all adults 18 years of age and older are now eligible to get a booster shot. This follows the authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of boosters for all adults who completed a two-dose initial vaccine series of either Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech.

“As more scientific data showing the effectiveness of a booster dose comes in, the Virginia Department of Health welcomes this move by the CDC and FDA,” said state vaccination liaison Dr. Danny Avula in a recent BRHD press release. “These vaccines are incredibly safe and effective, but no vaccine prevents 100% of illness. All vaccines’ effectiveness wanes over time, and the data show a tangible benefit to people when they receive a vaccine booster.”

The booster shots were developed in large part to combat the Delta variant, which began circulating widely earlier this year and is currently the predominant variant of the virus in the U.S. Delta has proven to be more contagious and to spread more quickly than the original Alpha strain—even among unvaccinated people. To read more about the Delta or other variants, visit www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/variants.

According to Elliott, anyone who received a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine should wait six months after their second dose to get a booster. Those who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine need only wait two months to get a booster.

“The cool thing is that anybody can pick which booster that they would like; so for people who got J&J and they would like to get a Pfizer (booster), that’s OK,” he said. “We would simply recommend that anyone consult with their primary care provider or their healthcare provider to figure out which one is best for them.”

For more details on the contents and effectiveness of each type of booster shot, visit www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/booster-shot.html. For lists of sites in the health district that are offering vaccines or boosters, visit www.vdh.virginia.gov/blue-ridge/covid-19-vaccination.

How else can I stay safe during the holidays?

Planning ahead is an important part of traveling, especially during a pandemic. Different destinations may have different requirements regarding testing, masking or vaccination status, so it’s important to know what documentation may be required before you hit the road.

“When we’re talking about traveling, some people are going to hop in a car and they’re going to drive 10 minutes down the road (while) some people have to go several states away,” Elliott said. “Knowing that any time you’re in an airport or an airplane, you’re going to be exposed to a lot more potential (COVID-19 carriers) … the risk is going to be higher with some modes of transportation than others.”

Those traveling by car are most likely to be around immediate family members during the trip and do not need to wear masks in the vehicle.

“But when you stop at a rest stop or when you go into a gas station, it’s worth putting on that mask for an extra bit of protection,” Elliott said. “Just weighing your options on what’s the safer way to travel.”

In places where it’s warm and sunny, outdoor gatherings can be a great option to increase circulation and air flow. However, even when it’s cold outside, opening a window or otherwise increasing ventilation in enclosed spaces can still help slow down the dispersal of aerosolized COVID-19 particles from an infected individual to others.

Should I also be worrying about the flu?

Last winter, record numbers of individuals locally received their seasonal influenza vaccines. The vaccines for COVID-19 had not yet been developed or authorized, and getting a flu shot was one way to cut down on the strain on hospitals overwhelmed with COVID patients. The CDC’s preliminary reports estimate that 38 million Americans contracted the flu in the 2019-2020 season—down from 45 million in 2018. Of those, 400,000 were hospitalized and 22,000 died from the flu—nearly half of those in the prior year and a third of the flu deaths in 2018.

This year, it’s just as important to get both the flu and COVID-19 vaccines in order to keep everyone healthy and stop a spike in cases from showing up over the winter. Local health districts and other providers can offer free flu shots at the same time as your COVID-19 vaccine or booster, according to Elliott.

“For some people it’s a lot easier that way because they go to one provider and they get both shots in one appointment—so they don’t have to find a babysitter, they don’t have to take time off work. And it’s perfectly safe to do that,” he said.

For most people, you can walk in to a pharmacy or vaccination center and receive a shot on the spot. If you want to be guaranteed a time slot or are looking for a specific type of vaccine or dose, call ahead to make an appointment or ask your primary care provider.

What about the kids?

As of Nov. 22, there have been 127 cases of COVID-19 within Greene County Public Schools since schools opened in August. This includes 10 students at Ruckersville Elementary, 16 at Nathanael Greene primary and elementary, 28 at William Monroe Middle School and 50 at William Monroe High School. There have been 23 cases among teachers and staff members.

Across the district, nearly 40% of reported cases have been among children. Although less likely to be hospitalized or die from the virus, children are an important factor in transmission to those who are more at risk.

On Oct. 29, the FDA officially authorized the Pfizer COVID vaccine for emergency use in children ages 5-11. Those 12-15 were added to the eligibility pool in May, and local school systems have been working with their respective health districts to offer vaccine clinics specifically for these populations.

“The BRHD worked closely with our school administrators and supervisors and identified where it would be best to offer these clinics,” Elliott said. “The schools are working with students and their families directly to make sure they know about these events and help them get signed up, and then we head out there and we vaccinate those 5-11-year olds that are ready to be healthy, and it’s pretty great.”

As of this week, 29% of BRHD children aged 5-11 have already received their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, which is a lower dose than the adult one. It is highly recommended to get these doses through the child’s pediatrician or to call and schedule an appointment to be sure the vaccine clinic has these specific doses on hand.

“Our community vaccination center at Seminole Square in Charlottesville has been a hub and they’ve got kiddos’ vaccines and adults’ there, so we’ve got lots of resources throughout the district,” Elliott said.

Where to learn more

BRHD’s COVID-19 hotline is still up and running and ready to answer questions about testing and vaccinations as well as other needs relating to COVID illness or quarantine. Full-time staff are available Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and the hotline will follow the same holiday schedule as the local health district offices. You can also email BRhealthdistrict@gmail.com and receive an answer within one day.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have the various locations and community partners to help make this stuff possible, and it’s so great to have those places where people can drive through or walk right in and stay healthy—whether that be getting tested or getting vaccinated,” Elliott said. “We’re so thankful for the community who’s taken us up on it and for the community partners who are helping us make it happen. One day, our hope and our goal is that we will look back on these stories and these experiences and be able to share them as a past thing and not as our present, so we’ll all keep working together on it.”

Contact your doctor or check out the links for further information. In the meantime, stay warm, stay safe and happy holidays.

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