The CDC has released its latest COVID-19 data, and it shows that Washtenaw County is one of many communities seeing a rise in confirmed cases. In the meantime, Washtenaw County is now offering booster shots to immunocompromised residents who are already vaccinated. Washtenaw County Health Department spokesperson Susan Ringler-Cerniglia provides more details on these updates in a conversation with WEMU's David Fair.
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU and I'm David Fair here to offer another update on the pandemic and its ongoing public health impact here in our community. Ever since COVID-19 first hit our area, we've been checking in almost every week with the Washtenaw County Health Department to bring you the latest and most pertinent information. And once again, we're joined today by Susan Ringler-Cerniglia. Susan is communications and health promotion administrator for the department. And thank you for the time again.
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Absolutely. Thanks for having us.
David Fair: The Centers for Disease Control is updated its figures for Washtenaw County, and we are still trending up. And the number of newly reported COVID-19 cases, in fact, by almost 12 percent over a week ago, figures, correct?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Yeah, we're still seeing that general turned up specifically in cases averaging somewhere between 30 and 50 per day right now. And our test positivity is right around four percent, up from less than one a few weeks ago.
David Fair: And how about hospitalizations and deaths?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: They remain fairly low. And, of course, you know, that's the first job of that vaccination to really prevent that severe illness. So, at this point, we're very optimistic that's holding. However, as folks may remember, when we see cases increase, those other metrics of hospitalizations and deaths do tend to lag weeks behind that increase. So, we're still watching that very carefully. But what we do know of hospitalizations and deaths has shown both locally and elsewhere that those are primarily among unvaccinated and often folks with multiple or at least single immunocompromised conditions or other vulnerabilities. So, it doesn't mean it can't happen to a fully vaccinated person. And certainly it does, but much, much less likely to become severely ill with that vaccination.
David Fair: And when it comes to transmission, the CDC has put Washtenaw County in the substantial category. However, some of our neighboring counties are considered in the high level of transmission category. Given the transient nature of us here in southeast Michigan, how much of a concern is that?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Well, definitely, that is way the way things are trending, right? If you look right now at that CDC map, we're as a county basically surrounded by other counties in red, and we're still hanging on to that orange, meaning that's substantial, and the next level is red. So, certainly, the trend around us locally and elsewhere across the country is continuing up.
David Fair: Nearly 89 percent of those 65 and older in Washtenaw County are fully vaccinated. Almost 66 percent of those 18 and up are as well. And, statewide, we're seeing a slight uptick in the vaccination rates. As for the overall population in Washtenaw County, but we're still about at fifty seven point four percent, that's well below the desired 70 percent stated for 16 and up. Those 12 and under remain ineligible for vaccines to this point. But, for as long as the vaccines have been available now in those particular age groups, it would seem that a majority of the people that want them have them. Is 70 percent even achievable at this point?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Well, it should be, yes. And we have gotten to that 70 percent over with our 16 and over that initial group that was eligible when that was set. But, you know, as you mentioned, we're just about 58 percent for all ages folks, because some folks aren't eligible and some haven't gotten it. The big challenge here, of course, is that while that vaccination is definitely providing a lot of protection for those that are covered by it, we know some folks can't be vaccinated. Some folks will continue to be quite vulnerable, even with vaccination, if they're immunocompromised or have underlying conditions. So, we're kind of stuck with that rate of not necessarily making the best use of our strongest tool. You know, we might be looking at a different situation if really everyone who was eligible was vaccinated at this point. So, that's a little bit disappointing in terms of having a now more contagious variant circulating. However, there are good rates and definitely should make this wave hopefully look better. And I shouldn't use definitely and hopefully in the same sentence.
David Fair: Certainly understandable.
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Right. We remain cautiously optimistic that even with our cases increasing, that protection for a substantial portion of our community really is going to make a difference in those in those most negative outcomes and those hospitalizations and deaths.
David Fair: We are talking with Susan Ringler-Cerniglia from the Washtenaw County Health Department on Eighty-Nine one WEMU. And you've mentioned one of the new developments over the past week has been the availability of booster shots for the immunocompromised. Those third doses of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines are available on a walk-in basis at the health department clinic at 555 Towner in Ypsilanti. Has there been steady business so far as we kick this program off?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Yesterday...You know, this is a pretty small subset of folks who are eligible for this additional dose right now. We there is no general booster authorized yet, so there's a lot of discussion about that. So, we haven't seen yet a huge increase for that currently eligible group. That said, we saw, it sounds like, about 90 people yesterday in our various clinics and a proportion of those were folks that could walk in for that additional dose. But, you know, we do still, as you mentioned earlier, continue to see steady vaccination and see that has increased a little bit in the last couple of weeks, particularly as some folks who might have been waiting to really see those large, large numbers of folks getting vaccinated and that happening safely or also starting to feel with the transmission increasing that there was more risk than there was just a few weeks or months ago.
David Fair: Well, the CDC is now recommending everyone who has had their two-vaccine shots get that third booster shot at least after an eight month period of time. There are some already passed or near that eight month mark. When might the boosters become more widely available beyond the immunocompromised?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Yeah, we don't have a specific timeline for that. But, as soon as there's a few steps that have to happen. You know, the FDA has to approve it, and then the CDC's advisory committee has to approve it. And then we do fun things like orders and get everything in place. So that's not yet approved for the folks that are calling and asking us about it or emailing us, but we are preparing for that, and we likely will because that's going to be a larger group. We are looking at some additional plans. We'll keep our pop -ups and those kinds of things going. But we may also open briefly one of our larger mass clinics, so that we can really get a lot of people through quickly. But an important thing to remember is that the situation in terms of vaccine availability is very, very different now than it was when those first folks got vaccinated eight months ago. And that means the vaccine is widely available at a lot of providers, whether that's your individual health care provider, your pharmacy, or many other places. So, it's a little bit hard for us to know exactly what the influx to our clinics will be, because there are lots of options. And, of course, we encourage folks to get it wherever is most convenient for them.
David Fair: This is Eighty-Nine one WEMU, and we're talking with Washtenaw County Public Health's Susan Ringler-Cerniglia. And, Susan, I'm sure you've been watching what is happening in some areas of Florida where school has begun, and already thousands have been asked to quarantine because of exposure. You've seen what's happening in Texas where they're close to or, in some cases, have run out of hospital beds for children with COVID. The school districts in our area will all have some version of a mask mandate. Nevertheless, does that have all of you in public health preparing for the possibility of widespread outbreak?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Absolutely. I mean, any time we see cases, you know, increase, that has an impact not only on the work that we're doing to monitor those cases, but that case investigation and contact tracing, as well as, you know, the information needs to share what's going on. So, we've been dealing with that for a bit now. And, certainly, schools reopening is something that we'll be watching very carefully. We saw some good news last year in terms of that classroom setting and those school settings. By that, I mean literally in the classroom, the bus, and those more controlled school settings with precautions in place. We had universal masking in place last year, distance, other mitigation strategies. We didn't see a lot of transmission happening in those settings.
David Fair: And let's hope that's the same this year, right?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Correct. And it looked very, very different. It should be clear from things like athletics or social events.
David Fair: Right.
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: But we're optimistic at this point that in-classroom learning, so long as the precautions are in place and used appropriately, can continue. But that said, with the variant and other factors happening at such as a school possibly choosing not to use those, we're watching that very carefully and making sure that the guidance we're providing really fits what we're seeing. So, if, for example, we start to see more spread or repeat clusters or outbreaks in those settings, then we're going to have some different guidance. But, right now, for students, we're optimistic that, with those precautions in place, with the use of things like rapid antigen testing and testing after exposure and masks, that we can really prioritize that in-person learning for students.
David Fair: Well, things continually evolve when it comes to the pandemic, and it changes week to week. So, we'll look forward to what there is to update the folks on next week. Thank you so much, Susan.
Susan Ringler-CernigliaAbsolutely. Thank you.
David Fair: That is Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, serving as communications and health promotion administrator for the Washtenaw County Health Department. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR Station eighty nine one WEMU FM and WEMU HD, one Ypsilanti.
Non-commercial, fact based reporting is made possible by your financial support. Make your donation to WEMU today to keep your community NPR station thriving.