The new Delta variant of the coronavirus has severely impacted several states, primarily due to low vaccination rates and an end to most mask mandates. WEMU's David Fair got the latest in his conversation with Washtenaw County Health Department spokesperson Susan Ringler-Cerniglia about how these recent developments may affect Washtenaw County residents.
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and I'm David Fair. You've heard all the reports the delta variant of coronavirus is spreading throughout the country. States like Florida and Alabama are being ravaged. And that is in large part because of the low vaccination rates there and the lifting of mask requirements. How is it playing out here at home? Well, let's find out together. Our guest is Susan Ringler-Cerniglia. And Susan is communications and health promotion administrator for the Washtenaw County Health Department. And not only do I appreciate your time, it's nice to have you back after a couple of weeks away.
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: [00:00:31] Thanks, David. Good morning.
David Fair: There has been an uptick in the number of COVID cases in Washtenaw County, as I understand it. How significant is it?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Well, at this point, it's certainly not at the levels that we've seen with past waves. However, we are seeing a fairly steady increase. So, for example, last week we started to see an average per day of about seven cases. Last Thursday, we reported nine for the day. And over the weekend, we had about 18 per day reported. So quite a jump over the weekend.
David Fair: Can we see all I want to say? Can we say with any authority that these cases can be attributed to the Delta variant?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: We really can't yet. You know, we can, you know, perhaps have an educated guess that we're starting to see the impact of that variant. But we do not have the information, the sequencing on the variant to be sure about that yet. So, the state is working on that and are asking really all of the reporting labs to start providing samples they've been doing. The state has been broadly doing some sampling for the sequencing to get that information, but it's not enough. So, they're asking labs to really start sending them all the samples that they can so we can get a better idea if is truly due to the variant at this point.
David Fair: We are also seeing more reports of late that many who are fully vaccinated are testing positive for COVID. Is that a trend we're seeing locally as well?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: We are seeing some of that. And I also want to be very clear that, you know, what we call a big breakthrough cases, that is expected to some degree, right? A vaccine as a medical intervention. It's not 100 percent effective. So it's absolutely expected that some people that are fully vaccinated will get COVID. Now, the expectation is also that those cases be fairly mild and that vaccine's first job of preventing severe illness or death is really what's very important in there, right? So, there is an expectation of some breakthrough cases, and, hopefully, those are very mild or at least mild enough that there's no hospitalization or death, right? A good comparison might be how we think of, you know, birth control. Very, very effective when used appropriately, but certainly not 100 percent effective in most cases, right?
David Fair: And the disappointment is the same when it doesn't work.
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Right. But, to your question, too, yes. We are seeing some more cases in fully vaccinated folks. We are not seeing hospitalization. And so, that also could be a factor of the variant. You know, we know the variant. The vaccine provides protection against the variant. It might not be as high a level as with the original strain.
David Fair: In studying the national figures, there's been a decided increase in the number of COVID cases among young people. That has to be of concern among the health department and academic institutions as we head towards the start of a new school year.
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Absolutely. I mean, one of the things that we have seen with this virus is that it's very, very smart, you know, to personify it. And in a way, in that, you know, these strains are changing and becoming more contagious, and it continues to find people that are more susceptible to the virus. So, now with, you know, individuals who are either unvaccinated or individuals of a certain age who cannot be vaccinated, we're seeing cases among those groups increase a bit. So, for example, in our last, two-week snapshot here in Washtenaw, we saw the proportion of cases in kids zero to nine increased quite a bit. It was at 20 percent. And our last report and prior to that, you know, it's been quite low, more like it hovered around 10 percent for a week or so. But prior to that, it was below 10 like five or four.
David Fair: So, it's still low, but it is of concern.
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Right. It is what we, you know, what we call a change or a trend that we're seeing a little bit. And, similarly, we're seeing our test positivity, which is that measure of the proportion of tests that come back positive, which was very, very low for quite some time under one. It hovered around point seven, and now that's back to one point eight, almost two percent. So, again, not a high number, but a trend and an increase. So we're very warily watching these numbers and, you know, not quite sure what the full impact is going to be here.
David Fair: We're talking with Susan Ringler-Cerniglia from the Washtenaw County Health Department on Eighty-Nine one WEMU. Most of the people I know who have been fully vaccinated--myself included--have not gone for another test since receiving the second dose of the vaccine. Should we be doing so? And if so, how frequently?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Testing, if you're fully vaccinated, the routine testing isn't necessarily recommended. But should you have any symptoms, then, yes, we'd go ahead and recommend a test. And the other exception to that might be if you have no exposure to an active case and you have symptoms, then we would recommend a test. But, otherwise, we're not currently recommending routine testing for vaccinated people.
David Fair: Earlier this month, there was a big country music festival at Michigan International Speedway. Some 30,000 people showed up to enjoy the festivities and the music. But now, a COVID outbreak is being reported. About two dozen have already tested positive, six of whom have been vaccinated. Everyone who attended may have been exposed and is being urged to get tested. Now, are you looking to see if something similar happens as a result of the Ann Arbor Art Fair?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: No, I have not heard that as yet, that there are confirmed cases associated with the Art Fair. But, as we know, a lot of folks that do it to me out for Art Fair come from other areas. So, I haven't heard that as yet. But, that said, with cases increasing, and if you've been in a large crowd like that and, absolutely, if you're experiencing symptoms, we recommend testing. And should we hear that there are cases coming out of it and that, you know, might be an indication to get tested. Now, I'm also going to say that a street art fair is probably quite a different kind of event than the music festival with the camping and potentially close quarters that might have been happening for a lot of folks. So, there is probably a stronger word of caution for that event than for something like an art fair.
David Fair: Nonetheless, there must be some concern when it comes to travelers. I mean, if you look close by down in Hillsdale County, the vaccination rate is the lowest in Michigan. Detroit has very low vaccination rates. And people do travel across the region and spend time in different communities, including here in Washtenaw County. That has potential to spread.
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Absolutely, and with, you know, travel being one of the normal activities that's increasing, we are seeing more cases connected to travel. So, and it's just another, you know, opportunity to be exposed to be in large groups of people. We do know under federal guidelines that masks are required in actual airplanes and busses and that sort of thing. But, certainly, there's a lot of opportunity for exposure in other crowded settings if you are traveling. So, again, you know, be cautious and aware if you should have symptoms, and, certainly, if you're unvaccinated to take precautions, like using a mask in more broadly than is currently required.
David Fair: And vaccination continues to be the best defense. So how are we coming along in getting to that goal of having 70 percent of Washtenaw County residents fully dosed?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: We are so very close to that 70 percent, and that's of our 16 and older. So, when that goal was set, we had 16 and older eligible and we are at 69 percent of that original eligibility. So very, very close to the 70s. But of note, if we're looking at the entire population, we have about 57 percent coverage. So, again, we know that folks under 12 are not eligible, but it makes sense to look at that whole, the whole population, in terms of coverage. And we're currently at 57 percent. And I think as we all, you know, recognize with now a likely more contagious variant circulating, that's not enough coverage to fully protect us. So, as you said, that vaccination and getting that on board is really one of our best tools. And to the degree that we can continue to get people vaccinated, we can hopefully prevent a very large wave from happening.
David Fair: Among the unvaccinated, it seems people are tuning out politicians, health officials, and broadcasters, to be honest. At the health department, how are you trying to rework or tailor the message to be more effective to the skeptics?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Yeah, it's a challenge, to say the least. And it's unfortunate that not only the politics, but really a lot of the misinformation that has circulated and become confusing. It's great that we live in an age where information in many ways is very, very accessible. However, that means sometimes that outright false or misleading information is often perceived at the same level or platform as more reliable information. So that's very challenging. One of the things that we're doing is really working, and continuing to work, I should say, with our community organizations and community leaders, we now have a group of community health workers, as well as vaccine ambassadors on board who are really going out into our communities and having those individual conversations with people, answering those questions, providing, you know, hopefully trustworthy information, answering questions, and really trying to do that in a more, you know, person-to-person way that any questions can get answered. And you can look at what are the sources of confusion and what can we help you answer and doing those in smaller settings on an individual basis.
David Fair: Well, thank you very much for the time today, Susan. And we will look forward to our next conversation with hopefully even better news.
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Hopefully. Looking forward to that.
David Fair: That is Susan Ringler-Cerniglia. She is the communications and health promotion administrator for the Washtenaw County Health Department. And, again, if you'd like more information on today's conversation, visit our website at WEMU dot org. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR Station, Eighty-Nine one WEMU FM and WEMU HD, one Ypsilanti.
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