At a time when we thought we might be moving on as the COVID-19 pandemic wears down, it seems like there is as much confusion and concern as ever.
WEMU's Lisa Barry talks with Susan Cerniglia, communications and health promotion administrator for the Washtenaw County Health Department, about the recent upward trend in COVID cases and the recommended tools for curtailing cases as more and more activities resume.
Lisa Barry: [00:00:00] At a time when we thought we might be moving on as the COVID-19 pandemic wears down, it seems like there is as much confusion and concern as ever. This is Lisa Barry, and we're always grateful for the opportunity to bring you the latest information from the Washtenaw County Public Health Department about what is happening in our community now. And grateful once again to be joined by Susan Cerniglia, communications and health promotion administrator for the department. Thanks for talking to us.
Susan Cerniglia: [00:00:27] Absolutely. Thanks for having us.
Lisa Barry: [00:00:29] Never know where to begin. So let's, I guess, start with our COVID cases continuing to increase in Washtenaw County.
Susan Cerniglia: [00:00:37] Yup, unfortunately, like pretty much all other areas right now, we're trending up. We've been in what we've called sort of moderately high. We've been seeing about 60 or so cases per day. And our test positivity just over four percent, closer to five, which isn't as high as some of our surrounding areas. However, it's really important to focus on what the trend is, and we continue to trend up. And, in fact, by the middle of this week, we are seeing an increase. We're expecting to report over 100 cases, I think, in this next day or so. So, it's not looking like that trend is changing after a week or so of more stable numbers. And what that tells us is that the activity continues to increase. We're in what the CDC defines right now as a high transmission level, you know, that looks at a few metrics and determines a transmission level. And we're not able to really say how long will continue to go up, but we can tell you we're still going up. And it's important also to understand that additional precautions, really using those available tools that we have to reduce transmission to prevent spread are critical. Well, we see these indicators trending up or remaining high while they while they come down.
Lisa Barry: [00:02:08] Several questions to ask based on all that information. Let's begin with what do you attribute that to? Is it because more people are gathering, students are back on campus, or is it due to the Delta variant or maybe both?
Susan Cerniglia: [00:02:20] It's likely both. We are definitely seeing what we believe is the impact of the Delta variant. The variant is much more contagious, at least a couple of times more contagious. Recognizing that each and every case isn't sequenced for the variant. You know, when a case comes back positive or negative, we don't necessarily know if it's a variant. But what we do know is that, in recent weeks, 90-some percent of the cases that have been sequenced in Michigan have been this Delta variant. So, that gives us pretty good evidence that that's what we're seeing in terms of the actual strain that's circulating right now. The other part, as you said, have things kind of gotten back to normal? And in many respects, you know, we don't have a lot of restrictions in terms of activities or gatherings right now. So, certainly more things are happening. We had quite low numbers, sort of the middle of the summer. And we've seen these numbers start to increase as we've hit late summer here. And we're really at the point now where lots of things are resuming. We haven't necessarily seen the impact of all of those things yet. So we're a bit, I'd say, on the edge of seeing what happens next. Some schools have resumed. Our universities are resuming. Other schools are starting this week or next week. So, that activity and the potential impact of that gathering--we will really probably start to see now and moving forward.
Lisa Barry: [00:03:55] I think one of the biggest questions I'm hearing is who's giving it to whom? Is it the unvaccinated necessarily giving it to the vaccinated? I'm hearing people who are vaccinated are getting COVID, but maybe asymptomatic or not really ill. How is it moving back and forth at this point?
Susan Cerniglia: [00:04:13] Correct. Good question. So, we know as cases have increased, we've seen, of course, cases both in our unvaccinated population as well as our vaccinated population. It's critical to remember that those cases among vaccinated folks are, by and large, almost exclusively mild or, in some cases, without symptoms at all. So, those are not the folks that are ending up seriously ill or hospitalized. However, when you do have cases, one of the things we're learning, particularly about this variant, is that what's called the viral load in that amount of virus that someone has, whether their illness is serious or not, has the potential to be spread. In other words, yes. Someone who is fully vaccinated and infected could, in fact, spread it. But another important thing to focus on is when you are vaccinated, your chances of both becoming ill or spreading it or, of course, being seriously, as we mentioned, is much, much less than if you're unvaccinated, right? So, we still need to keep that in perspective. Our vaccination is still our most important tool and really our best tool for preventing the most serious impacts, but also reduce the spread. It's not a perfect tool, but it does reduce the chances of becoming ill or spreading, right? If you're completely unvaccinated or if even if you had so-called natural illness more than three months ago, you're very, very vulnerable at this point--vulnerable to infection, vulnerable to serious illness, and particularly the illness that seems to be being spread by this variant.
Lisa Barry: [00:06:00] So, how do we move forward safely in the community? We are not under the same precautions we were at this time last year. As I said, a lot of activities are taking place now. I've seen people wearing masks outside of the Ann Arbor Farmer's Market. Do we need a mask outside? So many questions. I'm sorry. I feel like I'm pummeling you with all of these. But I just want to help people know how do we stay healthy? If you've been vaccinated, what precautions do you need to take? Is it OK to go to indoor events?
Susan Cerniglia: [00:06:28] Yes, definitely. A lot of questions and moving parts. And we've already said at this point, as we've seen cases increase and not just cases, but activity increase, that it is time to use our other strategies and tools. You know, I mentioned vaccine being our best tool, even though it's not necessarily a perfect tool. We also have lots of other nonmedical and mostly noninvasive type of strategies to really layer up our protections. So, we've said hopefully very clearly that indoor mask use is very appropriate and strongly recommended at this point. We know that transmission is increasing. We know that transmission is more likely in an indoor space and, of course, when you're in closer contact. So, absolutely, that's a clear action that we should be taking using those masks in indoor spaces. There is not necessarily the same type of recommendation for outdoor spaces, but, of course, if you're paying attention to what's going on and how this is actually spread, if you know you're going to be in very, very close contact with other people, such as at a stadium or at a crowded outdoor event, you know you're going to be within six feet. You know that that's going to be prolonged contact for more than 15 minutes. Is it advisable to use that additional layer of protection? Absolutely. So, hopefully that helps a little bit. But it's certainly we're in that that point where, as you mentioned, there's not necessarily orders or guidance, but we, as local health officials, local health department, as well as many other health professionals and advisory organizations, are sharing hopefully what you do have reliable information, because this is literally our job, right? To provide information about the trends and about what we're seeing in terms of who's impacted and what's going on, as well as sharing that a guidance about what can be preventative and what can protect health to the greatest degree possible. So, right now, of course, we're looking at that vaccination for folks that are eligible. We're looking at masks for everyone, especially in indoor spaces and, of course, using the distance and the handwashing. And don't forget also about the isolation and quarantine. Anybody who is actually ill or tests positive should isolate themselves. And we still very much are using quarantine for folks that are exposed, particularly if unvaccinated, there's traditional quarantining in terms of staying away from each other. But if you are vaccinated and you're not showing symptoms, then there's a little bit more leeway in terms of wearing that mask and being able to go about some normal things unless you become symptomatic.
Lisa Barry: [00:09:36] I understand Washtenaw County Public Health Department is close to announcing a mask mandate for public and private schools in the county?
Susan Cerniglia: [00:09:43] Correct. We are preparing that for Thursday. And this is expected to be both a mask mandate while we are at substantial or high transmission levels in our K through 12 settings, as well as a quarantine, you know, requirement similar to what we issued last spring. Now, we've had the majority of our public schools locally have already committed to requiring masks, which is fantastic. We have a little bit more of a mixed situation going on with our other private and independent schools. And, really, we've worked closely with our schools, and we're proud and happy that so many of them did the work and got those requirements in place. However, with transmission the way it is, we're very concerned to not have in place at all of our schools to prioritize that in-person learning and really make sure that this nonmedical, pretty noninvasive strategy is in place.
Lisa Barry: [00:10:51] And where is the county health department with booster shots? Are those being given out now?
Susan Cerniglia: [00:10:55] We have...there's a little bit of a semantic distinction right now between boosters and additional doses. So, right now, folks that have some specific condition that means their immunity is less responsive, so they're immunocompromised because of a drug or a condition, they can come and get an additional dose now. For the rest of us, we expect it to be approved for eight months after your second dose. That hasn't happened yet. So, we're not able to give any of those types of doses yet. We're expecting that that may be approved for the fall, sometime in late September, it's sounding like, but nothing is available yet.
Lisa Barry: [00:11:40] Susan Cerniglia from the Washtenaw County Public Health Department. Always, always appreciate your time talking to us here on 89-1 WEMU.
Susan Cerniglia: [00:11:48] Absolutely. Thank you.
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