CCPHD Director Mike Zelek’s messaging remains consistent: Vax up and mask up

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In Chatham County and across most of North Carolina, COVID-19 case counts are trending down.

On Chatham County’s COVID-19 dashboard, one critical number has stayed relatively flat.

And in Pittsboro, a reinstituted face-covering mandate has the town asking everyone indoors to mask up.

Such is life in the second autumn of a pandemic.

Pittsboro’s mask mandate announcement, made on Friday, was met on Facebook with a few howls of protest, including a meme of North Korea Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un — presumably to compare Pittsboro’s municipal administration to a political leader whose crimes against humanity have redefined the genre.

Others praised the move before comments quickly devolved into name-calling.

It’s part of why Mike Zelek, the director of the county’s Public Health Department, says he and his staff “keep doing what we do.”

Because not everyone’s listening to the message.

And because, he says, we’re not out of the woods yet.

A total of 263 Chatham residents have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the last two weeks, a rate about 15% less compared to the two weeks prior. But Chatham’s high community transmission of coronavirus and many residents’ stubborn refusal to get vaccinated has Zelek and his staff sharing the same message over and over.

“Education and messaging will remain important to uptake, whether or not a mandate is in place,” he told the News + Record this week. “As a public health department, we have been mainly focusing on two key strategies since the emergence of the Delta variant: vax up and mask up. These are our best tools to end the pandemic and avoid as many cases, hospitalizations, and deaths before we reach that point.”

He said that while mask mandates are the purview of elected officials in each jurisdiction, his department’s opinion in the matter is clear.

“We as a public health department,” Zelek said, “continue to encourage everyone to wear a mask in indoor public spaces given the ongoing high levels of COVID-19 in our community.”

And to get vaccinated.

Back on July 7, the county reached a vaccination milestone: on that day, exactly 50% of Chatham’s population became at least partially vaccinated. That’s the number which has stayed relatively flat: in the 12 weeks since, the percentage of those partially vaccinated has crept up to just 55%. Only 52% of the county’s population are now fully vaccinated; across the U.S., just over 55% of the population is, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Zelek quoted statistics from the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services, saying that in North Carolina, “unvaccinated individuals are four and a half times or 451% more likely to get COVID-19 as vaccinated individuals” and “15.43 times or 1,543% more likely to die of COVID-19 as vaccinated individuals.”

And while “breakthrough” cases of COVID-19 — infections among the vaccinated — make up about 15% of the new cases in Chatham, it’s the high number of cases among the unvaccinated and the hospitalizations that have Zelek repeating the mantra he — and most health experts — have been repeating for months: vaccines remain “incredibly effective” in the fight against COVID-19.

It’s falling, at least in part, on deaf ears.

The most recent data from the NCDHHS show that among those 18 years old and older in Chatham County, 65% are partially vaccinated and 62% are fully vaccinated. Still, nearly 6,500 Chatham residents have contracted COVID-19. Ninety-one have died. But for the qualifying adults and children 12 and over among the more than 30,000 county residents who’ve not yet gotten vaccinated, Zelek cites other statistics: across North Carolina’s health care systems, on a consistent basis, about 95% percent of COVID patients hospitalized in intensive care units are unvaccinated. Among those on ventilators — the most serious of the ill — that number is even higher.

“I hope that is convincing to some who remain unvaccinated,” he said of the serious illnesses among the unvaccinated. “To us, each person who gets vaccinated is one more who will likely not end up in the hospital, or worse.”

North Carolina’s new coronavirus infections numbers dropped this week to the lowest number since early August. And Chatham’s case rate — 353 per 100,000 population — is among the lowest rates in the state, Zelek says. But masking and vaccinations remain important because of the threat of the Delta variant. And because in states and regions where vaccination rates are low, hospitals — and even funeral homes — are running out of space.

CNN reported this week that COVID-19 is killing so many people in Idaho that some funeral homes are running out of space to store the bodies.

“We are working nonstop,” Ada County Coroner Dotti Owens was quoted as saying. “We’re exhausted. We’re frustrated. Funeral homes are out of storage. Our hospitals are out of storage.”

Both the CDC and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have recommended COVID-19 booster shots (see story from Chatham County Public Health Department on this page.)

But for those refusing the vaccine, it makes little difference — that’s according to Chatham Hospital’s chief operating officer and chief nursing officer, Eric Wolak.

“This is a monumental moment for us during our lifetime,” Wolak told the News + Record for a story last week. “This hasn’t happened in over 100 years. As a nurse I see what this is doing, with over 650,000 dead in the United States so far — a number I think is underestimated, I’m sure. I’m shocked that this is still a topic of conversation. The science and the data are so clear that the vaccine works, that it saves lives. Nursing is a science. And I would think as scientists we should all be able to see that and recognize it — and to understand that we need to get vaccinated for not only ourselves, but for our family and for our patients.”

Chatham County’s average daily hospitalizations rate — currently at 5 per 100,000 people — is lower than neighboring Lee (22), Wake (23), Alamance (28), Orange (57), Durham (35), Randolph (13), Moore (98), Harnett (31) and Guilford (30) counties. Still, as Chatham Hospital Chief Medical Officer Dr. Andy Hannapel told the News + Record last week, he and other physicians have experienced the frustration of having unvaccinated patients express regret over not getting vaccinated.

“... the majority of the unvaccinated patients we bring into the hospital will admit, ‘You know, I should have gotten (the vaccine), I should have gotten it, and I want it now,’” Hannapel told the News + Record two weeks ago. “Which is a pretty hard thing to see. And they’re saying this in between gasping for breaths. So it’s not an exaggeration. There are people who are suffering, who have great suffering. And that could have been avoided.”

In making the announcement reinstituting its mask mandate, Pittsboro Mayor Jim Nass said part of its purpose was “to educate the community about the benefits of wearing masks, support employers and others in creating an expectation that masks be worn and raise awareness about the need to slow the spread of COVID-19.”

Zelek hopes those who haven’t been listening will finally hear.

Bill Horner III can be reached at or @billthethird.


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