The “hot vax summer” is coming to an early close as COVID cases rise across the country and children head back to school. In Greene County, 154 new cases were reported between July 1 and Aug. 17, with 18 new hospitalizations and four new deaths attributed to the virus.
“We’re really beginning to see an uptick in number of cases, and this mirrors what we’re seeing in all of the other localities in the Blue Ridge Health District—really what we’re seeing across the state and across the nation,” said Dr. Denise Bonds of the BRHD. “It’s really been a pretty profound increase in cases in the last month or so.”
During the month of June, Greene saw some of the lowest number of new cases since the start of the pandemic. With more and more people getting vaccinated, this looked like the long-awaited light at the end of the tunnel.
So what’s changed in the last month? The Delta variant.
“In the other variants that we saw before Delta … if you were vaccinated, not only were you protected from hospitalization and death, but you didn’t actually put out much virus either—your immune system was very capable of stopping the replication of the virus in your body,” Bonds told the Greene County Board of Supervisors last week. “What we’re seeing with the Delta variant is different. People who are vaccinated have generally fairly mild symptoms and seem to recover quite quickly and readily … but if you have the Delta variant COVID virus, you could spread it to five or seven other people. That’s as infectious as chicken pox.”
Recent data from the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) shows that the majority of cases in the past six weeks can be attributed to the rapidly spreading Delta variant. Variants are determined by genomic sequencing, which can take longer than standard testing and is not performed by all laboratories during COVID-19 screening; however, the trend does strongly suggest that most new cases are due to this strain.
“The more people who are vaccinated, the lower the risk for community transmission, and the less community transmission we have, the less likely we’re going to develop an even more lethal or more worrisome variant,” Bonds said. “So, the deal with viruses is that every time it passes from one person to another, there’s an opportunity for that virus to shuffle its instructions just a little bit—not enough so it won’t reproduce, but enough that it might reproduce a little faster or be a little more infectious. … I’m just going to reiterate, the way out of this pandemic and the way out of all of the restrictions and back to a more normal existence for all of us is to get vaccinated.”
As of Aug. 16, 10,279 Greene County residents have been fully vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus. With the county population just over 20,500 in the 2020 census (see story on A3), this is a 50% vaccination rate. In the Blue Ridge Health District, 57.1% or 146,000 people have been fully vaccinated. Statewide, the rate is 55.2% (66.3% of adults over 18) or 4.7 million people. Nationwide, 50.7% or 168.4 million people have had their shots.
But what about those who still have not been approved for the vaccine, those less than 10 years old?
On Aug. 12, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced a Public Health Emergency Order requiring universal masking in all indoor settings in the state’s K-12 schools—both public and private. The order reinforces current state law (Senate Bill 1303) which requires state schools to adhere to mitigation strategies outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“A lot of the settings where we’re seeing individuals test positive is in situations where masking and other mitigation strategies such as social distancing—particularly in indoor settings—may have prevented those outbreaks from occurring,” said Ryan McKay, BRHD’s COVID incident commander, in a press briefing Monday. “We continue to recommend and reiterate the critical nature of wearing masks in indoor settings, particularly for individuals who haven’t yet had the opportunity to get vaccinated.”
As of July 28, CDC recommendations include universal masking—regardless of vaccination status—for all students, teachers and staff.
“We all share the same goal of keeping our schools open and keeping our students safe,” Northam said in a press release. “That’s why the General Assembly passed this law (SB 1303) with overwhelming bipartisan support. This Public Health Order makes it very clear that masks are required in all indoor K-12 settings, and Virginia expects all schools to comply.”
In addition to the public health order, Northam signed House Bill 7001 last week, which provides $500 million to improve ventilation and air quality in public schools, further decreasing the risk of various airborne illnesses.
The public health order came just a bit late for Greene, which began school on Wednesday, Aug. 11. Two contentious school board meetings in the week prior left many parents frustrated by the board’s inability to make a firm decision on the mask guidelines for the start of school, and on Tuesday, Aug. 10, the matter was settled in a letter from GCPS Superintendent Dr. Andrea Whitmarsh to parents—which reiterated that masks would indeed be required in all buildings from day one.
“The vast majority of school districts have chosen to follow the CDC and keep their school communities safe,” said Virginia Superintendent Dr. James Lane last week. “Universal masking has worked in school settings across Virginia for the past year and a half, and it remains a critical part of our safety protocols.”
“We know that masking is an effective tool to prevent the spread of COVID-19, particularly among children who are not yet eligible for vaccination,” said Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver. “As cases rise in our communities, universal masking and other mitigation measures will ensure our schools continue to be the safest place for Virginia’s children.”
According to VDH, to date, 98.34% of all COVID-19 cases in the state have been attributed to people who were not fully vaccinated. Of those who were hospitalized for COVID-19 complications, 97.24% were not fully vaccinated. Of those who have died, 98.17% were not fully vaccinated.
The Greene County Health Department continues to offer walk-in vaccines every Monday. Walmart, CVS and Greene Pharmacy also offer COVID-19 vaccinations in Greene. A program in partnership with UVA Health will bring a shot to you if you can’t get out of the house, and the BRHD mobile unit is traveling to businesses, churches and events to offer vaccines on a regular basis.
Many of these same sites are also offering COVID testing for those who feel ill or may have been exposed to someone who is sick. According to BRHD’s Monday briefing, local health districts have also been approved to offer third-dose shots to anyone who is moderately to severely immunocompromised. Recipients of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines should wait at least 28 days from their second shot before scheduling a third dose; the CDC is currently working on recommendations for those who received the Johnson & Johnson shot moving forward. If you are unsure if you qualify, BRHD recommends calling your primary care provider.
The full list of vaccine sites is available at vaccine.gov. Testing sites can be found at vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus/covid-19-testing-sites.