The CDC's latest data indicates that the entire state of Michigan is now considered high risk for COVID transmission and infection. Locally, the number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are trending upward. WEMU's David Fair was joined by Washtenaw County Health Department spokesperson Susan Ringler-Cerniglia to provide the latest updates.
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and I'm David Fair. Every single county in the state of Michigan is now listed as being high risk for coronavirus transmission. According to the CDC, here in Washtenaw County, we're seeing between 60 to 80 new cases of COVID-19 each day and hospitalizations and COVID-related deaths are on the increase. Joining us for an update on what is happening here locally and the efforts underway to combat further spread is Susan Ringler-Cerniglia. Susan is communications and health promotion administrator for the Washtenaw County Health Department. And thank you for making time for us today.
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Thanks, David. Good morning.
David Fair: I think we all kind of expected there would be a greater number of cases when schools reopen, school activities resume, large crowd events got back underway and more people returned to the office for work. Is this about what the health department was anticipating?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: You know, it's always difficult for us to really predict the future versus share what the trends are. But, you know, as you said, with college having resumed a few weeks ago locally, K through 12 school now back in session, and lots of activities happening really without restrictions, lots of social gatherings and activities, you know, we continue to see generally a trend up in activity. And we've also now seen that, not surprisingly, in younger school age children, our past week snapshot that's updated on Thursdays, we saw the case increase in our five to 11 year old kids. So, that was new and a trend that's likely related to activities resuming as fall.
David Fair: Being prognosticators, as you have pointed out, is not really the function of the department. And it's certainly not easy to do. But I'm kind of betting that when vaccines first became available, that people working in public health assumed it wouldn't be all that difficult to get most everyone vaccinated. And, obviously, that hasn't really happened. Where are we on vaccination numbers in Washtenaw County, let's say, for the 16 and up age group?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Yes, for the 16 and up, which was that original 70 percent goal, you know, we're doing quite well. We're just over 70 percent. I believe it's right, about 72, 73 percent right now. And we've seen a slow but steady increases over this last month--in the last few months. And we saw a bit of an increase, a bit of a faster increase, I should say, when we started seeing transmission increase, and we started to see the impact of that Delta variant. So, since then, it's kind of slowed down a little bit, but still steady increases week by week. So, certainly, some folks who are eligible who haven't yet been vaccinated continue to do so. And then, of course, overall, you know, we know we have a portion, a significant proportion of younger individuals, kids who aren't yet eligible. So, we're right about 60 percent overall vaccination. And ,of course, many of us are waiting anxiously for that approval for the younger kids, so that we can start making some better overall progress and get those younger kids protected.
David Fair: We are talking with Susan Ringler-Cerniglia from the Washtenaw County Health Department on Eighty-Nine one WEMU. Booster shots now recommended for those 65 years and older. The health department is going to announce today it's expanding its COVID-19 clinics to accommodate both those in need of a booster and those that we've discussed--who have yet to be vaccinated at all. What specifically are you offering?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: We have set up drive-thru clinics at our Washtenaw County Clinical Health Department area, which is in Ypsilanti, 555 Towner. So, during the month of October and starting October 5th, we'll be having drive-thru options Tuesday through Friday. And we also have two Saturdays, so that hours on the weekdays are not in two, 3:30, and they'll be 10 to three on the Saturdays. So, lots of opportunity to quickly and easily drive through. And, as you mentioned, this is not only to help with the influx of folks who are eligible for boosters, and that's the Pfizer-only at this point. But also we can continue to offer all three vaccinations for anyone who has not yet been vaccinated.
David Fair: Now, given the size and scope of that endeavor, at least potentially, does the health department have enough staffing or will outside help be called in once again?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Yes, we are working, as folks might remember, with some of our mass vaccination clinics and some of our pop-ups that we did earlier on when we were one of the only providers that could do COVID-19 vaccine. We did work with the National Guard. So, we do have the National Guard helping us with some staffing for these drive-thrus, so folks can expect to see them as they come through. And this also, as we've been doing COVID vaccination, we've worked very hard to make sure we're providing it in multiple ways and making it as accessible and equitable as possible. So, we continue to offer walk-ins during that time. We also continue to work with community partners, organizations, businesses, based organizations to offer those community pop-ups across the county and in different locations, as well as our Nurse on the Run, which provides home visits for homebound folks. So, we'll continue to do those options as well. And, again, with the goal of making it as accessible as possible, it's also...one more good reminder is that the availability of vaccine is very, very different now, right? So, many people that might have gotten their first series from us at the health department could also check with their doctor and pharmacy, because it's very likely that you could get it there, if that's more convenient for you at this point.
David Fair: As you mentioned, right now, only the Pfizer vaccines are approved for booster shots, and those who have the Moderna vaccine, or the one shot, Johnson and Johnson dose are going to have to wait, at least for a little while longer. When might we see these booster shots become available to the general public and not just those 65 and older?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: You know, that's a little unclear at this point, there's certainly evidence that for healthier and healthy individuals and younger individuals that those vaccines are providing good protection and that protection is lasting fairly well at this point. So, as you mentioned, the ones that are eligible for boosters are really those folks that are more vulnerable. And we should clarify, too, because this is a confusing point, the Pfizer, as you mentioned, is now a booster for certain groups, older adults, folks that may be living or working in institutional settings and folks with underlying health conditions. Complicate that a little bit by the fact that a third or what has been called an additional dose has been available for people that are immunocompromised. So, this is different than a booster because it's more like a third dose in the series. So, if you are severely or moderately immunocompromised, you can get a third dose in this series of either Pfizer or Moderna. But that is not the same as a booster of Pfizer that's now available six months after your second dose.
David Fair: Once again, this is Eighty-Nine one WEMU and our conversation continues with Washtenaw County Health Department spokesperson Susan Ringler-Cerniglia. As mentioned, it is expected vaccines for five to 11 year olds will soon be approved. It could happen in the month of October. Are you prepared for what that's going to mean for the health department?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Yes, you know, we started putting these clinics into place, really looking at the month of October and November with an eye both to the boosters and to hopefully having the vaccine available for younger kids. Now, as I mentioned, for everybody, availability is different now. So, we do expect a lot of folks would be taking their kids to their pediatricians, to their regular doctors, for those vaccines, but, certainly, we'll be prepared to continue offering community clinics, walk-ins, or drive thru, you know, as needed to accommodate that.
David Fair: With that age group added in, do you think it might actually push us past the 70 percent vaccination rate of the total county population?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: I certainly hope so. I mean, it would open up some additional eligibility and, well, there are certainly parents who would have questions and want to be sure that they're, you know, making the right choice for their kids at this point. We do know that there's a lot of parents and guardians who are ready to get that vaccination on board, and it should give us a boost up in our overall protected rate.
David Fair: If and when we get to that point, do you expect to see a level of herd immunity that would actually drive down new cases in the resulting hospitalizations and death rates that COVID-19 brings?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: You know, that's been a big challenge and a big question as sort of the target keeps moving and, excuse me, as the virus changes and may become more infectious or clinically different, certainly with folks getting having both natural immunity becoming ill, as well as continuing to increase our vaccination. We get closer and closer to having higher levels of protection. And having that vaccination on board is really the best way that we can, first and foremost, prevent those most serious outcomes, those hospitalizations, deaths, long-term illness. But, also, they've been proven effective at starting to reduce the spread, because you're reducing the vulnerability in the community. So, absolutely. The more folks that we can get vaccinated really prevents the most negative impacts overall. It's still a challenge and a question to know exactly what number will get there or how additional variants might impact that. But, we do absolutely know with confidence that the vaccination is going to help protect us overall, as well as individually.
David Fair: Thank you so much for updating all of the information today. I always appreciate the time, and I'll look forward to our next conversation.
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Absolutely. Thank you.
David Fair: That is Susan Ringler-Cerniglia. Susan serves as communications and health promotion administrator for the Washtenaw County Health Department. For more information, 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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