Chatham touched by COVID surge as officials eye new metrics

BA.2 variant causes increased cases, but hospitalizations down

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A new surge in COVID-19 cases after a two-month decline may be more significant than it appears because of the rise in home testing, but it’s mostly all quiet on Chatham County’s case count front.

Still, local health officials say the metrics are worth paying attention to.

The wave — in parts of the northeast U.S., as well as in Alaska and Washington, D.C. — is being caused by the new variant called BA.2, which medical officials say is about 30% more contagious than the Omicron variant.

Compared to earlier waves, the case number increases seen today are relatively low, and higher levels of immunity from vaccinations or past infections could continue to keep numbers lower than prior surges.

For now, Chatham County’s “community level” is low — along with most of the rest of the state — according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention metrics. Only Beaufort, Macon, Orange, Wayne and Yancey counties are at the “medium” level across North Carolina, and none are at the “high” level.

Although Chatham’s case counts have jumped in the last week or so (to 66 in total, up 78% in the last week), other indicators (notably hospitalizations) are down, according to Mike Zelek, the director of the Chatham County Public Health Department.

“Our COVID numbers continue to look a lot better than they did in January when we were dealing with the worst of Omicron,” he said, referencing a period when new case counts were well above 200 per day.

But with the BA.2 variant now making up the majority of new N.C. cases, Zelek anticipates another jump.

“We will likely continue to see increases in metrics,” he said, “and we encourage folks to keep an eye on the CDC tracker to inform decisions.”

That tracker (CDC’s COVID-19 Community Level Tracker, found at https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/) continues to include case rates, he said, but also factors in hospital metrics as well — namely COVID-19 admissions and percent of beds in use by patients with confirmed COVID-19.

“The nice thing about this tracker is that it gives a COVID-19 community level for each county based on these metrics, along with recommendations based on that level,” he said.

The current recommendation for counties, like Chatham, at the “low” level: “Stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccines. Get tested if you have symptoms. Wear a mask if you have symptoms, a positive test, or exposure to someone with COVID-19. Wear a mask on public transportation. You may choose to wear a mask at any time as an additional precaution to protect yourself and others.”

The CDC has changed its threshold for “high” levels of COVID-19 to 200 cases per 100,000 instead of 100. That, Zelek said, along with more of a focus on hospitalizations, represents a shift in approach — a shift from preventing infections to preventing serious illness and protecting the strained health care system.

Zelek points to a few factors for that change:

• widespread access to safe and effective vaccines, including boosters. “Everyone ages 5 and older is eligible,” he said. “That is why the recommendation above starts with vaccines; they continue to be our best tool. Even if you get infected after being vaccinated, the risk of severe illness is lower.”

• the fact that a significant segment of the population was infected with Omicron, which provides additional protection. “Omicron also caused, on average, less severe illness than prior variants, which emphasized the importance of looking to hospital metrics along with case data,” Zelek said. “The BA.2 omicron subvariant appears to look like Omicron in terms of severity.”

• the reality that COVID-19 will likely remain with us long-term, which creates a need to approach it in a sustainable way. “Focusing on preventing severe illness and death is the key to this,” he said. “If a future variant causes more severe illness, we will need to adapt, so we will also be looking at what is happening around the world to stay prepared and share timely guidance.”

As he tracks metrics, Zelek says he’s keeping an eye on three other measures: wastewater surveillance, positivity rates and vaccination rates.

“Considering the rise in at-home rapid test use, which affects the number of cases that are reported and therefore case rates, wastewater surveillance and positivity rates are especially informative,” he said.

Chatham doesn’t have any wastewater surveillance sites, but there are sites in nearby counties that can be found on the state’s COVID dashboard.

As the surge shows itself in parts of the country, experts continue to say states with low rates of vaccination will likely face more infections and severe cases winding up in the hospital.

Chatham’s vaccination numbers remain mostly unchanged this year — 63% (N.C. is at 84%) are partially vaccinated and 59% fully (N.C. is at 64%). At least one in four residents has been infected and 109 residents have died.

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