Chatham’s appetite for COVID-19 vaccine waning

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One in 11 Chatham residents has contracted COVID-19 during the course of pandemic, but with tests for coronavirus now coming back positive at a rate of about 3.5% inside the county — below the critical 5% threshold medical experts prefer to see — there’s a suggestion the Delta wave is waning.

The leading voices in Chatham’s fight against coronavirus, however, say that suggestion ignores one vital fact: despite unassailable data that COVID vaccines are effective, the current appetite for them in Chatham County is nearly nil.

Four months ago, on July 7, exactly 50% of Chatham’s population became at least partially vaccinated. Since then, that number hasn’t moved much: the percentage of the partially vaccinated here crept up to just 55% by mid-September and has stayed at that number since.

The number of fully-vaccinated has nudged only incrementally in that time frame — from 52% to 53%. But the percentage of residents 18 years and older vaccinated stayed flat during October: as of today, 65% of Chatham residents are partially vaccinated and 62% are fully vaccinated, rates that haven’t changed since mid-September.

Which means that 33,000 Chatham County residents — including children who only just became eligible, of course — have yet to receive a first dose of one of the readily-available COVID-19 vaccines.

Given that the unvaccinated continue to make up most of the sick in Chatham County, and with data continuing to show that most COVID cases can be traced back to exposure by an unvaccinated individual who’s spread the virus in a small cluster — it’s not surprising county health leaders remain frustrated.

“Simply put, the case rate and positivity rate do not change the importance of getting vaccinated,” said Chatham County Public Health Department Director Mike Zelek. “The stagnation in vaccination rates has been a frustration for many of us. The COVID vaccine is widely available. On an individual level, getting vaccinated is for most a ticket out of the hospital. On a population level, it is what is needed to end the pandemic.”

Through early this week — a week which saw the world’s death count from COVID top 5 million — there have been nearly 6,800 cases of the virus reported among Chatham residents and 91 local deaths. Across the state, the percentage of residents partially vaccinated has risen to 59%, with 55% fully vaccinated.

More than a quarter — 27% — of COVID cases in Chatham have been diagnosed in residents aged 24 or under.

Eric Wolak, the COO and chief nursing officer at Chatham Hospital, told the News + Record a “realistic expectation” for vaccination rates in the county is a high percentage.

“Honestly, there is no reason why it shouldn’t be more than 90%,” he said. “Accurate information is available to everyone, as are the vaccines. While we are seeing positive trends so far, if such a large amount of the population continues to remain unvaccinated, then there is a strong likelihood that positivity rates will increase — as will hospitalizations, and mortality.”

The pandemic is still here and “is not going anywhere soon,” according to Wolak — and that’s because so many eligible residents have allowed misinformation and ungrounded skepticism to convince them they’re OK without what they describe with contempt as “the jab.”

“North Carolina is in the bottom half of states in terms of vaccination status,” he said. “Right now only 70% of our eligible population have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine. That is not near enough to generate herd immunity. So while our rates are currently dropping, they are not where they need to be. And with such a high number of unvaccinated people in our state, there remains a real risk of another spike in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.”

Dr. Andy Hannapel, Chatham Hospital’s chief medical officer, pointed to the fact that North Carolina is still averaging more than 40 deaths a day from COVID — the vast majority of those among the unvaccinated.

“Those of us who can take the vaccine need to step up and get vaccinated to protect our neighbors, family members, the more vulnerable in our population, our children and ourselves,” he said. “The time is now, not when you are sick with COVID and in the hospital.”

If you’ve had COVID?

And what about those who’ve had COVID and survived with minimal symptoms? Doesn’t natural immunity make it unnecessary for them to get vaccinated?

The answer: absolutely not.

You still need to get vaccinated if you’ve had COVID, Wolak said.

“Having COVID does not protect you from getting COVID again, especially a different variant,” he said. “Perhaps more importantly, if you do get infected again, then you are risking transmitting that virus to someone who may get very sick from it.”

The health department’s Zelek agreed the vaccination adds protection even if you have been infected. He pointed to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study which said “unvaccinated individuals are more than twice as likely to be reinfected with COVID-19 than those who were fully vaccinated after initially contracting the virus.”

Another CDC report, published over the weekend, said evidence demonstrated that both fully vaccinated individuals and those previously infected with COVID-19 have a “low risk” of additional infection for at least six months — but “substantial immunologic evidence” indicated that becoming vaccinated after an infection “significantly enhances protection and further reduces risk of reinfection.”

“The guidance on this is clear,” Zelek said. “All who are eligible should get vaccinated.”

Wolak said the antibodies generated from vaccines protect us from the worst impact of the virus if we contract it in the future.

“The development of antibodies this way helps provide herd immunity without people getting sick from the disease,” he said.

Hannapel added that we don’t yet know “at what minimum level of antibodies — called an antibody titer — in your blood are you protected.”

But we do know the effect of becoming fully vaccinated.

“When you are fully vaccinated, your risk of hospitalization, ICU admission, being placed on a ventilator or death is significantly less,” he said.

Zelek poses the question: why not do all you can to reduce your risk?

“Vaccination is beneficial even if you have been infected and if you have been through a case of COVID once,” he said. “We heard this from many who had been infected and came to get vaccinated. They were eager to get the vaccine and not go through a serious case again.”

And Wolak pointed to the issue of spread as another reason — whether you’ve had COVID or not — to get the vaccine.

“We know people can get it again even if someone has had it before, especially if they are exposed to a new/different variant,” he said. “More importantly, not getting vaccinated, regardless of having the virus in the past, puts us at greater risk of a more infectious and harmful variant in the future. Additionally, even if someone has had it before and have some form of protection from that previous infection, they still risk passing the virus on to someone who could get very, very sick from it.”

Hannapel, who’s spoken openly about hearing severely ill COVID patients express regret over not getting vaccinated while struggling for breath, encouraged the unvaccinated by saying: “Don’t gamble with your life.”

Between 10% and 30% of COVID survivors suffer from “long COVID,” he said, exhibiting persistent symptoms that “greatly affect their well-being.” In addition, the diminished healthcare workforce — due in large part to the pandemic — adds another level of concern.

“That limits our ability to care for patients in the hospital,” Hannapel said. “Nurses are leaving for non-hospital nursing positions, doing travel nursing to increase their pay, retiring or plain out exhausted by the pandemic and all the affect it has had in caring for all of our patients. It is happening in our state and in Chatham County.”

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