COVID-19 cases are increasing again in Chatham — and almost exclusively among the unvaccinated

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A sudden jump in positive COVID-19 diagnoses in Chatham is almost entirely among the county’s unvaccinated and partially-vaccinated population, and health officials warn that the Delta variant of the virus and the persistent refusal of so many residents to get vaccinated are causes for alarm.

Although the raw number of new cases is relatively small, the Chatham County Public Health Department’s Mike Zelek says one key measurement — the number of new cases per 100,000 population — has approached a threshold the county hasn’t seen in months.

During much of June, Chatham was seeing “around zero” new cases each day, with a rolling 7-day average of well under 10 cases per 100,000 population, Zelek, the CCPHD director, said. As of last week — after a day in which seven new cases were recorded — that measurement was approaching 50 cases per 100,000, representing an increase of more than 150% from the prior week and a level considered “substantial community transmission,” by definition of the Centers for Disease Control.

The sudden surge comes soon after Chatham crossed another threshold: having 50% of its residents at least partially vaccinated.

“So you have half the population, essentially, with some really good protection through vaccines,” Zelek told the News + Record in an exclusive interview. “Yet the cases are rising, and we see this across the state. So, are the numbers what they were in January? No, but that doesn’t mean they’re not getting worse. And what it looks like two weeks from now, if these trends continue, we’ll be worse than we are today — which is what our fear is.”

Cases, hospitalizations increasing

COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, in pure numbers, remain low in the U.S. But outbreaks in regions — and clusters in small geographic areas — are driving up rolling 7-day averages and other statistical indicators after months of positive trends.

Across the U.S., new cases of the coronavirus increased nearly 70% in the last week compared to the week prior, based on data from the CDC released Friday, with hospitalizations up 35.8% as mask and gathering restrictions loosened and the Delta variant of COVID-19 continued its spread. North Carolina saw a 77% increase in new cases in the past week, including four straight days — last Wednesday through Saturday — with more than 1,000 new cases. On Saturday alone, 1,163 cases were reported, the highest single-day figure since May 20, according to the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services.

More than 600 people were hospitalized across the state as a result of COVID-19 early this week — the highest number in seven weeks — with nearly a third admitted to intensive care units.

Back in mid-June, Chatham County’s rolling 7-day average of new cases was just 1.1. Exactly one month later, that number had risen to 3.9. Only 33 total new cases were reported in all of June in Chatham, a number surpassed in July before the month’s first two weeks had passed.

Globally, there have been 190 million cases and more than 4 million deaths attributed to COVID-19. Chatham County has seen 4,802 cases and 89 deaths.

Among recent deaths across the country, though, more than 99% have occurred among the unvaccinated, according to the CDC. The unvaccinated also account for more than 97% of recent cases and hospitalizations — prompting President Joe Biden to declare on Friday that “the only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated.”

Experts say the Delta variant of coronavirus — a highly contagious SARS-CoV-2 virus strain, first identified in December in India — is also a factor in driving the increased number of cases. Its higher transmissibility rate — two-thirds more contagious than previous strains, according to Zelek — makes “hyperlocal” outbreaks more likely, particularly in poorly vaccinated areas. Zelek said he and his team at the public health department have been “keeping an eye on” the upward curve and fretting over whether it was “a blip” or a significant trend — particularly with vaccination rates going up as well.

“But we know about Delta,” he said. “And so I think that’s the key factor. We know how infectious it is. So to me, yes, it is a cause for concern. Not just because of what we’re seeing in Chatham, but what we’re seeing in the state, and what we’re seeing around the country. It mirrors those trends.”

There are enough factors, Zelek said, to make the increases “more than a blip.”

The importance of vaccines

In a press release produced by the health department late last week, Zelek said that 94% of the new cases in Chatham County were among those not fully vaccinated.

He reiterated then, as he did in an interview with the News + Record, the importance of the vaccines.

“…(W)e’re concerned,” he said. “And that’s why we’re continuing to hammer home the message — the best thing you can do right now is get vaccinated.”

When asked about the 6% of new cases not coming from the unvaccinated or partially vaccinated population, Zelek described that number as “really just a handful of people.” These “breakthrough” cases — fully vaccinated who have tested positive for COVID-19 — aren’t a surprise, he said, because of the tested efficacy of the vaccines.

“They’re not 100% effective all the time,” he said, “so it’s not a surprise that we’d be getting (positive cases among the unvaccinated) somewhere in the 90s.”

When it comes to vaccination outreach, Zelek said the department’s efforts have been focused on “census blocks” that have been more affected by case rates, based on available data and by disparities noted within Chatham’s population.

“And so we’ve done a lot of targeted outreach,” he said. “We made sure there were options out in some more rural areas of the county — for example, Goldston.”

Zelek also said he was disappointed to see “ideology or political mindset” create disparities in how people in Chatham County see coronavirus, and particularly the vaccines.

“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen how politics has played into this,” he said in a discussion about stark differences between the numbers of those who identify as Republican (47%) and those who identify as Democrats (6%) who responded, in a recent national poll, by saying they “likely” or “definitely” wouldn’t get vaccinated.

“From my vantage point, frankly, that’s really disheartening,” Zelek said. “Because this is a global problem, we should all be coming together at the local level, then the state level, the national level, and the global level against a common enemy, which is COVID.”

Misinformation about COVID and about the vaccines has frustrated him, he said.

“Ultimately, why I care about it is because people get sick and die,” he said. “And right now, those deaths are preventable. If you’re fully vaccinated, you’re very unlikely to die from COVID and you’re very unlikely to go to the hospital.”

His department’s work has mirrored work done by other local public health agencies and those across the state and country, he said, adding: “Everybody’s trying to get the word out there.”

But because many of the unvaccinated are believing misinformation about the virus and about vaccines, they are opting instead for vaccine hesitancy and even vaccine hostility.

As hospitalizations increase sharply among the unvaccinated in Chatham County, Zelek says that’s a hard fact to accept.

“We have these preventable illnesses and deaths,” he said. “We could avoid these. We have the resources, we have the vaccine in most places in the world. You look around, you look at the rates … it’s not because the vaccine’s not there. We’ve had great access to vaccines pretty much throughout our county, throughout the state, throughout the country, for several months now …

“But we’re obviously not going to force people to get it,” he said. “We try to make it as easy as possible. We’re sharing all the information we can to build confidence in the vaccine …”

The tools are in place, Zelek said, to stop COVID-19. But it won’t happen until more of the unvaccinated get vaccinated. For “ideologies, or misinformation, or whatever you want to call it,” he said, to stop someone from considering the vaccine hurts the entire county.

“It does nobody any good,” he said. “And for us in the health department, I don’t care who you are, where you live, what your background is … we have equity-focused efforts. We want you to get vaccinated when you’re eligible because it does you good, it does your loved ones good. And it does the community good. And it will allow us to get back to normal — to not live in fear of risk of illness and death.”


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