Cases spiking again, but in wake of horrific milestone, there’s good news

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Chatham County Public Health Director Mike Zelek hands Alirio Estevez his second-dose appointment slip during a vaccination clinic last spring.
Chatham County Public Health Director Mike Zelek hands Alirio Estevez his second-dose appointment slip during a vaccination clinic last spring.
CN+R file photo
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The number of new COVID-19 cases in Chatham County is spiking — up 89% in the last two weeks — raising community levels to “medium” for the first time in more than two months.

Meanwhile, as the nation’s death toll from the pandemic surpassed 1 million, local health officials mourned what Eric Wolak, the chief operating officer and chief nursing officer at Chatham Hospital in Siler City, called “a heart-breaking milestone.”

“It is incredibly sad thinking about the millions and millions of families that have been impacted by this epidemic,” he said. “The biggest lesson, for me, is that this pandemic is not over. We are continuing to see infections and deaths, which have increased as society has ‘returned to normal.’”

COVID-19 remains a threat to the community’s health, said Mike Zelek, the director of Chatham County’s Public Health Department.

“(It) has kept us on our toes for over two years,” he said. “One million deaths nationwide, including more than 100 in Chatham, hits hard. This pandemic has taken a heavy toll on our community, as it has on communities around the world. As a local public health department, we have seen more than ever the important role public health plays in keeping communities healthy. We have also seen that we can’t do this work alone, and we are indebted to our health care and community partners, as well as Chatham residents, for doing so much to keep this toll from being worse. But the fight is not over, and these tools remain effective.”

Chatham is averaging about 29 new cases per day after seeing mostly single-digit new daily case counts from early March through May 10; the number of hospitalizations and deaths have not increased, though Wolak said COVID admissions at The Medical Center in Chapel Hill have jumped “about 10%” in the last two weeks.

Across North Carolina, case counts were up by about 69% over the last two weeks as total COVID-related deaths in the state neared 25,000. One in four N.C. residents has been infected, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and state agencies.

In light of those numbers and trends, Wolak encouraged Chatham residents to think hard about their own care and precautions.

“I do hope people critically assess their risk tolerance, get vaccinated, if not already done so, and boosted, if eligible, and feel comfortable wearing a mask, even if everyone else isn’t,” he said. “As we have seen in other countries, I would expect case counts, hospitalizations, and infections to continue increasing over the next month to eight weeks. If anything, I really want people to be aware that COVID continues to circulate among us and to keep themselves as safe as possible.”

The two-plus years of the pandemic have “shown the importance of togetherness and community,” said Zachary Horner, the Chatham Public Health Department’s public information officer.

“I’ve seen it here in our department: nurses working in the cold and rain at vaccine clinics, environmental health staff helping restaurants adapt to new requirements and prevention techniques, and staff putting in extra time to communicate and share information about the virus, the vaccines, and more to the community at large,” he said.

“I’ve also seen it in the community: the Chatham Health Alliance’s Resource Hubs providing information and services to the community at-large, the Chatham County Council on Aging providing special attention to our oldest neighbors, and the school system working hard to keep educating our children. It’s been a long two years, and there has been a lot of sadness, a lot of grief. We mourn with the families and friends of the 114 Chatham County residents who have died from this virus.”

Early in the pandemic, initial forecasts predicted the national death toll from the virus between 100,000 and 240,000. The New York Times reported last week that the United States has a higher infection rate than many other wealthy countries, attributing that to inconsistent policies and responses and political divisions.

Chatham’s vaccination rates haven’t budged lately — 59% of the population is considered fully vaccinated, but not boosted; 65% have received one dose, and 40% are both dosed and boosted.

Wolak and Zelek were encouraged, though, by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new recommendation last week for a booster dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children 5 to 11 years old.

Children in that group who received their last dose at least five months earlier are eligible to receive the additional doses right away.

“As a clinician, I am thrilled boosters for this age group have been approved,” Wolak said. “If someone has a child in this age group, I would highly encourage them to move forward with these boosters. While the current variants seem to be more able to evade infection, even with vaccinations, the data is clearly showing that vaccinations and boosters significantly reduce the severity of the disease.”

Zelek offered this guidance: “Children ages 5-11 years old, similar to older ages, should get a booster shot five months after getting their second dose. We have seen over the past two years that while children are at lower risk, they are not at no risk. A booster shot can help restore protection, especially against severe illness and complications from COVID-19.”

Children ages 5-9 made up about 5% of all Chatham County cases through May 14, Zelek said, while children 10-14 make up 6% of cases.

“That’s one in nine COVID-19 cases in the county in children ages 5-14, which is not a small number,” he said. “A COVID-19 infection has the possibility of keeping kids out of school and can also result in long COVID.”

Zelek also reiterated that adults ages 50 and older — as well as those who are immunocompromised or have a weakened immune system — should get a second booster dose.

“I have gotten questions from folks in this group who are thinking of waiting until the fall for this booster,” he said. “With cases on the rise again now, I would not delay in getting this extra protection.”

The Chatham County Public Health Department has the booster shot for 5-11 year-olds and Moderna booster for adults at its Siler City clinic. Call 919-742-5641 to make an appointment or visit www.vaccines.gov for additional options to get vaccinated.

A silver lining in the pandemic has been innovation, Zelek said — noting a recently-authorized test for COVID-19, RSV and flu that’s collected at-home.

“I think this combination test is another exciting innovation,” he said. “While it often takes some time before something authorized at the federal level is available locally, I am hopeful that tools like this one will be important resources in the months and years ahead, and that we continue to use this uniquely challenging situation to learn and advance.”

Bill Horner III can be reached at bhorner3@chathamnr.com or @billthethird.

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