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'We May Be Done With The Virus, But It Is Not Done With Us,' Says Wash Co Public Health Official


The number of COVID-19 cases is steadily increasing locally, according to Washtenaw County Public Health Department spokesperson Susan Cerniglia.  

She talks to WEMU's Lisa Barry about the latest trend in cases and the impact on wearing a mask, going out in public, and going back to work as the pandemic continues.


Washtenaw County Health Department

Washtenaw County Health Department COVID-19 Site

Breakdown of Washtenaw County COVID-19 Cases

CDC COVID-19 Information

CDC COVID-19 Variant Information

Washtenaw County Health COVID-19 Testing Information

Washtenaw County COVID-19 Vaccination Info

CDC Post-Vaccination Guidelines

Michigan Workplace COVID Safety Guidelines


Lisa Barry: There seems to be growing confusion concerning what is happening with the COVID-19 pandemic at this point. Just when we think we have some things figured out. There's a new development, like a variant of the virus, or evidence that even if you're vaccinated, it might still be transmitted. This is Lisa Barry, and we're always grateful for the opportunity to connect with the Washtenaw County Health Department to get clarity on what is happening. So we're joined now by a department spokeswoman, Susan Cerniglia. How are you doing, Susan?

Susan Cerniglia: Good, Lisa. Thanks for having us.

Lisa Barry: How are the cases trending in the county right now?

Susan Cerniglia
Credit J. Adrian Wylie
Washtenaw County Health Department spokesperson Susan Ringler-Cerniglia

Susan Cerniglia: Unfortunately, it's not good. We've been seeing a steady increase for a few weeks now. As we all, you know, celebrated, we really had very, very little cases for a time there. We're averaging, this week, probably about 30 or so cases per day. And that's steadily increased, as I said, over the last weeks. Last week, we were at 15, 20. The week before that, we were below 10. So, steadily moving up.

Lisa Barry: Has the County Health Department's view of the variant changed recently?

Susan Cerniglia: Well, not really changed, but, you know, as expected, this is unfortunately looking much more contagious. And that really kind of changes things. We've known all along that, you know, part of this is probably our expectations and feeling like we should be done with the pandemic. And, unfortunately, it's just not done with that. And viruses do change and mutate, and they get smarter about how to continue to cause problems. And that's what we're seeing with this variant. Much more contagious. And that is likely the reason for the increase in cases. Now, we've got a couple of different things going on, right? We have some pretty good vaccination rates. We're so very close to 70 percent, and our 16 and older group here in Washtenaw. But because our 12 and unders aren't eligible yet, that means overall we're at about 57 percent right now. So, that's simply not enough to really protect everyone. And that means the virus is going to continue to find people and spread. And the other part of it, as you mentioned, vaccinations are a medical intervention. No medical intervention is 100 percent effective. So, it is totally expected that there will be some cases among fully vaccinated folks.

Lisa Barry: Right. My two new least favorite words are "breakthrough cases." So, you mentioned about 30 cases a day occurring in Washtenaw County. Do you know what percentage of those are so-called breakthrough cases, people who have been vaccinated?

Susan Cerniglia: I don't have an exact percentage, but it's, you know, looking maybe around like 20 percent or so of those. Now, the important thing, though, is that, again, we do expect some infections among vaccinated people. That vaccine's first job and most important job is to prevent that serious illness and potentially death, right? So we do monitor hospitalizations by vaccination status very closely. And, at this point, and as folks have seen, you know, in other states and nationally, very, very few hospitalizations or deaths among vaccinated people and even the number of breakthrough cases, I'd hazard to say, it's just been overreported and overfocused. Done. Right?

Lisa Barry: OK, let's say that again. You think that there that these breakthrough cases are not as common as what we're hearing?

Susan Cerniglia: Right. And they do happen. And again, I want to emphasize it's expected, right? It's not the majority of cases. It's not even close to the majority of cases, right? It's a small proportion of cases, and it is not represented by and large any serious illness and hospitalization. And that's very, very important, right? That what we want to see is that vaccine preventing most hospitalizations. And if you've looked at those numbers at all, you know, it's in the 95, 99 percent, meaning that 95 percent of people hospitalized are unvaccinated or under-vaccinated, right? The vaccine is doing its job of protecting us against that severe illness.

Lisa Barry: Some of us have allowed ourselves to move about the community more once we heard it was safe to do so because we were vaccinated. So, should we be pulling back on that and being more cautious?

Susan Cerniglia: Well, unfortunately, again, going back to this, we're not done with this pandemic. It's not done with us. We're getting to the point where we, as the health department and in accordance really with the new guidance from CDC, that it is the time to start looking at some of those additional prevention measures, right? We have not crossed over as folks have looked at this. The CDC set guidance on using masks indoors for everybody if a community reaches what they call a substantial transmission rate. We in Washtenaw right now today are at the moderate, but we are right on the edge of that substantial, okay? So that happened that over 50 cases per hundred thousand, and we're right around 42. So, the way things are trending are very, very likely to cross into that, you know, this week or very soon. So, do we recommend considering some additional precautions and using a mask if you're in a indoor location or a crowded location? Absolutely. It's time to start thinking about that the way things are trending now. I want to be also very clear that all along there was no--again, still in a pandemic--there was no messaging from us or really at the federal level to say, "Get rid of those masks, throw them away, we're done." That wasn't what the take-home message really should have been. For fully vaccinated people, could use pretty safely go without masks in most situations? Sure. But we continue to recommend that if you were in a crowded situation, especially if that was indoors, that having that additional layer of protection--very good idea. We also know that some people are still quite vulnerable to infection, even if they're vaccinated. So, someone that perhaps is older, immunocompromised, something like that. We also have a lot of people, particularly our 12 and unders, not vaccinated. So any time you're in that mixed situation, or you're going to be around people more vulnerable, having that mask does add another layer of protection.

Lisa Barry: Let me point out that nearby Livingston and, I believe, Oakland Counties have already reached that levels where they're back to recommending masks indoors.

Susan Cerniglia: Correct. And again, we're right on that threshold of crossing over. Neighboring counties have crossed over. It's unfortunately just what is happening with the trends as this more contagious variant is really able to find and affect people most vulnerable. And as you pointed out, and as we've discussed, it's not impossible to get infected. While vaccinated, you are unlikely to get very ill, but it is time to really think about use and put in place some additional measures and, hopefully, not see trends as high as we've seen in past waves.

Lisa Barry: What about eating inside restaurants or going to the movies are going to work out at a health club?

Susan Cerniglia: Yeah, you know, these are all challenging questions that we're going to have to start thinking about again. We've gotten back to some of our normal activities, and now, obviously, we're going in the wrong direction. So, if you are enjoying some of those out-and-about activities and you find yourself in crowded situations and situations where you're not sure if others are vaccinated, it may be time to start pulling out those masks in those situations. You know, restaurant dining is a tough one. If, you know, you're in a place where there is more spacing or there's outdoor seating, then, yeah, I would probably feel fairly confident about that. If it's a crowded indoor space where you're really not far from other tables where diners aren't necessarily using masks or staff aren't necessarily using masks, I'd be a little more hesitant.

Lisa Barry: Many workplaces are calling employees back to the office. Is it still safe and the right thing to do at this point?

Susan Cerniglia: You know, again, it's going to there is some circumstantial things to look at, like the contact among people. How to what degree are your staff or clients vaccinated, or can you be certain that they are. You know, this virus and this pandemic, you know, we keep thinking we're done, and we make these plans. A lot of places have plans to get back, you know, to sort of full, in-person staff in the late summer and fall. And, you know, here comes the virus again, reminding us that, "Whoops! You know, we're not quite done." So, masking in those situations might be a good thing to put in place if it's not already planned. But the other part of that is we are really going to see more in the next coming weeks--what this is going to look like. And, of course, part of that depends on how we behave, because we know those layers of protection can be changed by our individual behaviors and actions, how well we're respecting the virus. In other words, using those strategies that we know can reduce and prevent transmission.

Lisa Barry: Unfortunately, we are out of time. But I want to mention that Washtenaw County has a number of vaccination pop-up clinics coming up this month. So, lots of opportunities to get vaccinated, and we'll put a link to that with this interview on our website, WEMU dot org. Washtenaw. County Health Department spokesperson Susan Cerniglia. Thank you again for talking to us here in WEMU.

Susan Cerniglia: Thank you, Lisa. 

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— Lisa Barry is the host of All Things Considered on WEMU. You can contact Lisa at 734.487.3363, on Twitter @LisaWEMU, or email her at lbarryma@emich.edu

Lisa Barry was a reporter, and host of All Things Considered on 89.1 WEMU.
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