As COVID cases surge, health expert weighs in on Delta, vaccine and more

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As COVID-19 cases surge, Chatham County’s total case count since the start of the pandemic has roared past 5,000.

There was a lull in the spring; from March 12 until July 28, Chatham didn’t see a single day with 10 or more newly diagnosed cases of the coronavirus. There have been no deaths from COVID since May. But since Aug. 1, Chatham has seen nearly 300 new diagnoses, an average of almost 19 cases per day, according to the N.C. Division of Health and Human Services.

So the News + Record reached out to Chatham Hospital’s Eric Wolak with questions about the Delta variant, the skepticism of some medical experts about “lockdown” policies, and more in the way of an update.

Wolak, DNP, MHA, RN, NEA-BC, is the Chief Operating Officer and Chief Nurse Officer for Chatham Hospital. He has more than 20 years of healthcare experience, having worked various positions as a nurse and as a hospital administrator. Wolak holds a master’s degree in Healthcare Administration from the University of Washington and a Doctorate in Nursing Practice from the UNC-Chapel Hill.

Why is the Delta variant so contagious?

ERIC WOLAK: Data shows that the Delta variant creates a viral load (that is the amount of virus in your body) that is about 1,000 times higher than the previous variants of the virus. This very high viral load, it is believed, is what causes the virus to be so contagious and make people, even younger people, sick.


Are the vaccines effective against the Delta variant?

Yes, they are very effective. While people who are vaccinated can still get infected with COVID, it’s a much smaller chance (only about 1%) compared to those unvaccinated. Additionally, those vaccinated do not get so sick that they need hospitalization. Only about 1% of those hospitalized are fully vaccinated. This means of the 2,500 people hospitalized with COVID in North Carolina today, only about 25 are probably vaccinated, and those individuals probably have significant underlying medical conditions


What else should the community know about the Delta variant?

The Delta variant is a mutated version of the COVID virus. We have learned that it is much more transmissible. The original virus would infect about four people for every person who had it; the Delta variant can infect about eight people from one person. We are also learning that it makes people much sicker. Data shows that those who are infected with the Delta variant (which now makes up more than 90% of all COVID infections in North Carolina) carry much more of the virus (about 1,000 times more) and get much sicker. This includes even younger people, who were minimally affected from the original COVID virus.


What can people do to protect themselves from the variant?

First and foremost, get vaccinated. Also, wear a mask whenever you are indoors in a public setting (grocery store, etc) and/or when you are around known people whom you do not know their vaccination status. Physical distancing (6 feet or greater) and good hand washing continue to be very important in preventing the spread of COVID.


What should someone who is hesitant to get the COVID-19 vaccine know?

I think it’s important to know that without being vaccinated your chances of getting the virus and getting sick from the virus is much, much greater. There is also a much higher likelihood that you are passing the virus on to someone else, who may get sick and possibly die.


If someone has already had COVID-19, should they still get the vaccine?

Yes, the CDC recommends even those who have had COVID should get vaccinated. While they may have some form of immunity, there is no guarantee that they won’t get sick and/or pass the virus on to others again. Vaccinations have tremendous ability to significantly reduce re-infections and transmission.


Is it possible for the COVID-19 vaccine to impact fertility?

No; this is a false rumor that is unfortunately out there. There is no indication whatsoever that COVID-19 vaccines impact fertility. Additionally, it is now recommended that pregnant woman and nursing mothers also get vaccinated.


Why would you recommend getting the COVID-19 vaccine?

If you want to keep yourself, your family, and others around you safe from COVID, then one of the three available vaccines is your option.


There’s a lot of emphasis on vaccinations, but what role does natural immunity play in us collectively getting past this pandemic?

I’m sure there is a role in natural immunity, but at what cost? Currently, about 10% of the U.S. population has had COVID. That means 90% (about 297 million people) have not had it and do not have natural immunity. This represents an incredibly large part of our population who are at risk of contracting COVID and potentially millions of deaths. Additionally, there has been recent evidence that those who have had COVID before are susceptible to the Delta variant. Those vaccinated, however, have a very low chance of contracting COVID, and an even lower chance of getting sick from it.


We’re looking at masking up again indoors with growing mandates — should we be wearing N95 masks, or are most commonly-available masks OK?

You should be wearing commonly-available masks. The N95 masks are designed to prevent airborne disease. COVID is mostly transmitted by saliva/droplets. Wearing masks (commonly available ones) prevents one’s saliva from traveling from your body to another’s while talking/breathing. (Typically saliva can travel up to 6 feet with normal conversations held indoors).


The Great Barrington Declaration is a document which expresses what it describes as “grave concerns about the damaging physical and mental health impacts of the prevailing COVID-19 policies.” It says, among other things: “As immunity builds in the population, the risk of infection to all — including the vulnerable — falls. We know that all populations will eventually reach herd immunity — i.e. the point at which the rate of new infections is stable — and that this can be assisted by (but is not dependent upon) a vaccine. Our goal should therefore be to minimize mortality and social harm until we reach herd immunity.” Any response or thoughts about those points?

I think it is vital to emphasize that COVID vaccination is a safe way to reach herd immunity. And it can be done while saving lives.

My concern with the above statement from the Great Barrington Declaration is that it seems to indicate that getting sick with is COVID is inevitable and that we should just let the virus run its course. The consequence to that is potentially millions of deaths and even more millions of very sick people crowding our hospitals.


We can reach herd immunity by getting the vaccine and, by doing so, reach it without unnecessary death and sickness.

Have questions about COVID-19? Send them to news@chathamnr.com and we’ll pose them to area health and medical officials.

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