MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – As of Thursday, May 6, there were at least two COVID-19 variants circulating in Monongalia Co., causing alarm at the Monongalia Co. Health Department (MCHD).
“We worry about that,” Dr. Lee Smith, executive director of MCHD, said.
Smith, who is also the County Public Health Officer, said there are four “variants of interest” in West Virginia: the United Kingdom (UK), California, Brazil and South African variants. Of those, only two are known to be in the county, as of now.
As the chart above demonstrates, there are 904 UK variant cases in the state as of May 6 and 130 of those, or 14 percent, of those cases, are in Mon. County. Those cases present in the two to 90-year-old range.
Smith said the county has “the lion’s share” of the California variant, of which there are two. That’s because of 224 cases in the state. The county has 162, or 72 percent, of those cases.
These numbers are vastly increasing. At some point, there were only a handful of variants in the county. This is what MCHD finds concerning. Especially, when you consider both mutations are more infectious and that the UK, specifically, leads to more hospitalizations and deaths.
Variants are spreading as vaccination rates in the Mon County have “plateaued” recently, the county’s public health officer said. Roughly 43 percent of county residents have received their first dose of a vaccine, but that is still a ways off 60 percent — when herd immunity becomes feasible.
Smith said MCHD is actively working to curb the low vaccination rates as part of a wider effort to fight variants from appearing and keep residents safe.
We have had various designs on the way that we’ve handled vaccine clinics, we’ve had evening clinics. We’ve had Saturday clinics. We’ve had clinics where no pre-registration is required. We have gone to food pantries. We have talked to various churches. If we have, you know, a number of people, we will certainly bring the vaccines to them. This, however, is labor-intensive. If you’re offering a vaccine at no cost to anyone between these hours and all you have to do is show up, that’s about as easy as it gets. We know that there are people that have transportation issues. We know that there are people that may have babysitting or other issues to, you know, children or family type of concerns, and if they contact us, we can make arrangements for them.Dr. Lee Smith – Executive Director, MCHD
Because no matter how labor-intensive it is to reach out to individuals and different groups, that is still better than the other option. That is to say, Smith and his team at MCHD understand that if the county does not reach herd immunity, the virus will continue to spread, mutate and, somehow, cause even more harm.
But, he said, they face a couple of huge hurdles. One is the media, which likes to present a drop in cases as good news.
“That’s all well and good,” Smith said. “It’s nice to have good news, but I don’t want to sell the story that it’s OK to stop doing the things that protect people.”
Those things, again, are social distancing and wearing masks in crowds, washing your hands and, of course, getting vaccinated.
The other major hurdle is misinformation. Social media is the biggest contributor to false information, which then makes many county residents vaccine-hesitant.
“Probably the most common things that that we get questions about is that there are some rumors about infertility or viruses during pregnancy,” Smith said. “I can tell you that there is no evidence in either one of those that I’m aware of. And, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology has come out and, officially, said that a woman who is pregnant should definitely be vaccinated against COVID. Because, you know, women who are pregnant who contract COVID can have an increased number of miscarriages, and other issues.”
Smith said there have been tens of millions of people vaccinated in the U.S. and “there’s not been a single death there”. He granted that there are often allergic reactions, but not to the extent that the vaccines should be avoided.
Hopefully, he said, one way Monongalia Co. can reach herd immunity is through vaccinating 12 to 16-year-olds. Currently, Pfizer is hoping its vaccine will be approved for that age group and so is Moderna.
“I would love to see a bunch of school-aged kids gets vaccinated,” Smith said.
This push to lower the age limit will also be critical against variations, MCHD’s executive director said.
Because, remember, the more time COVID spends circulating, the more variants it will create. And the ones currently going around are already bad enough for adults and children alike.
“Whether it’s the UK or California, they are having large impacts in school-aged children,” Smith said. “That is a very rapidly growing number of kids that are contracting these. While it’s good that they don’t become hospitalized, they certainly can spread it and it keeps the community infection rate higher and that’s what we want to focus on — it’s trying to break infection in the overall community.”
Smith said while the COVID-19 vaccines are not a silver bullet, they are highly efficacious. He said people who have been vaccinated can still catch variants, but their chances of severe illness, hospitalization and even death are exponentially reduced as a result of inoculation.
However, if COVID keeps mutating, who knows how effective current vaccines will be?
MCHD would prefer not to wait to find out that answer by doing its part to help Monongalia Co. reach herd immunity against COVID-19.
“We do know that mutations are coming and they’re coming more frequently because we haven’t broken the chain of infection,” Smith said. “So, the more people that get vaccinated — it’s a little bit like wearing a mask, my mask protects you. My vaccination protects you as well. And there are some people who will not be able to become vaccinated because of particular medical conditions. But society should be proactive and try and protect them as well.”
“We should do what we can to help reduce the spread of this disease, I’m not looking forward to having year after year dealing with COVID, so let’s do what we can now to stop it. I appreciate that people are fatigued. We’re tired of talking about it. We’re tired of doing it. No one’s more tired than public health, I can tell you that. But, we’re still out here every day and we want to get people vaccinated. So if you have a question, you give us a call.”