Washtenaw County COVID Cases Remain Steady As Mask Policies Return
The Delta variant of the coronavirus has led to a major increase in infections across the country. In response, many businesses and schools, including those in Washtenaw County, have reinstated policies requiring protective masks while indoors. Washtenaw County Health Department spokesperson Susan Ringler-Cerniglia joined WEMU's David Fair to discuss the latest pandemic information and how it impacts us in our community.
David Fair: And I'm David Fair, and this is Eighty-Nine one WEMU. I'm all masked up, as are more and more people throughout the community. Well, I've chosen to continue wearing masks in indoor places throughout the pandemic. It is now the CDC and Health Department recommendation that you join me. In fact, many businesses and educational institutions are once again mandating. And so what is going on with COVID-19 in the Delta variant in our community? Let's find out together as we welcome Susan Ringler-Cerniglia. Susan is communications and health promotion administrator for the Washtenaw County Health Department. Good morning to you.
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Good morning.
David Fair: Where are we with new COVID cases and hospitalizations in the county?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Well, the mildly good news over the weekend is that we didn't increase. We sort of held steady. And if you've been watching our numbers, we've been seeing a rather steady increase, not a rapid increase, but steady over the last several weeks. And right now, we're at about 30 cases being reported per day, and that's stayed consistent over the weekend. We also.
David Fair: Go ahead.
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: I'm sorry,--pretty good news that our hospitalizations are fairly low. And, you know, that's expected for a couple of reasons. We wouldn't have seen them increase yet as the cases increase, because those hospitalizations tend to lag at least several weeks behind. Also, hospitalizations have been almost exclusively among the unvaccinated people. So, that is another reason that hopefully our vaccination will stay low during this increase.
David Fair: Well, we've all heard the reports of places like Florida, Austin, Texas, where there are so many new cases, they're running out of hospital beds. And you've made very clear that's not happening locally at this point. But does not the potential exist?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Absolutely. And that's, you know, what's making us all, of course, a bit wary now. Now, as folks remember that vaccination's first job and what the goal was was to prevent that serious illness and hospitalizations and deaths. And, as I mentioned, it's working quite well for that and has been seeming to hold against the variant. Whether that will remain true as the variant becomes more and more widespread or we see additional variants, we can't say at this point. But right now we do know that the vaccine remains protective against that serious illness. So, if you're vaccinated, and you become ill, which is possible, you know, it's a medical intervention, not 100 percent effective. That illness should be either completely without symptoms or mild.
David Fair: And that is the majority of the cases, but not all. There are occasions where people do get sick. So, preventing it becomes even more important now across the country. And more and more young people are not only catching COVID, but are having significant health issues. Is that playing out at all in Washtenaw County?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Yes. Unfortunately, we are seeing that happen across the country. As you mentioned, we do have cases among younger folks. And, you know, that, again, might be a factor of younger folks not being as well covered by the vaccination or unable to get vaccinated if we're talking about our 12 and under. So that virus is going to continue to find people that are most vulnerable to illness and cause infection. We're certainly seeing some of that. We're not yet seeing increased hospitalization or other negative impacts in that younger group to much degree here.
David Fair: We are talking with Susan Ringler-Cerniglia from the Washtenaw County Health Department on Eighty-Nine one WEMU. So, as we talk about the vaccinated, what is the vaccinated rate in Washtenaw County right now among the 16 and up population?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: So, that group that we had that 70 percent goal set when we were 16 and over was eligible, we are just so very close to our 70 percent. We are at sixty nine point eight, I believe. So, hopefully with today's update, we might have crossed that 70 threshold, and, overall, for coverage in our population because, again, everybody is not eligible or just shy of 60 percent. So, neither of these numbers, though, is high enough to really prevent the spread. Therefore, we're at the point now we really need to do our other preventative strategies, those masks, distance, and definitely staying away from others if you're ill.
David Fair: So, we talked about the 16 and up population, and now those who are 12 and older are eligible for vaccinations as well--those under 12 not yet eligible for the vaccinations. How far can we get with that 12 to 15 group before the start of the academic year?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Well, the good news is our 12 to 15 are doing quite well. Really, a lot of individuals that group are ready and willing to be vaccinated. We see a bit more of a lag as we get up into that late teens, young adults. So, age wise, we've had a little bit less coverage there. But, bottom line now really is for anybody across the age groups, if you haven't gotten vaccinated yet, perhaps, you know, you're kind of taking a wait and see attitude, or you thought earlier with the dropping rates of infection that maybe it wasn't so necessary anymore. Certainly, now is the time to do that. And we have seen a bit of an uptick these last couple of weeks--quite a bit of an uptick actually-- in our vaccination. Instead of getting 20 or so people at an event that doubled to more like 40 many of our events. So that's great news for anybody that was waiting that they can get that protection on board as soon as possible.
David Fair: And does the fact remain, as it once did, that the least vaccinated portions of Washtenaw County remain in the 41917 and 41918 area code, the eastern portion of Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Township in that area?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Now we've had a few zip codes that have been under our 60 and 70 percent. And we do have a map on our website where you can, you know, look carefully at those. We have been seeing as they, as I mentioned, very steady increase. You know, it's been slower since the vaccine initially came out, but it has been steady. And we do really use those census tracks, those smaller areas, to look at precautions of vaccination and make sure that we're doing everything possible to create accessibility and make sure that we're going to those neighborhoods. We're offering education and information, and we're really out there making it as easy as possible to get vaccinated.
David Fair: Well, the Delta variant is what is most talked about around the country and locally these days. But there are other and even more insidious variants that have arrived in the country. Now, they are not here in Washtenaw County as of yet. But how closely are you watching?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Well, yeah, we're obviously watching that pretty carefully. And the big concern, again, going back to this idea of layering up our prevention methods and getting that vaccination on board. What we know so far about the Delta is that, you know, the vaccination is holding quite well against it. However, as spread continues to happen, not only here but elsewhere, that's additional opportunities for that virus to mutate and change and get around our defense mechanisms. So it's not just about protecting ourselves right now from Delta, but really making sure that we can slow that overall spread--even those mild cases--and stop that virus from having those additional opportunities to mutate. So, it matters not just now, but for potential future, even more contagious variants.
David Fair: And I do want to look ahead. Once again, you're listening to Eighty-Nine one WEMU, and we're talking with Washtenaw County Health Department spokesperson Susan Ringler-Cerniglia. As we have covered, prevention is going to be key. The CDC, the state, the county health department, all recommending mandatory face masks for any activity inside, particularly school buildings. We've seen school districts, colleges, and universities begin to make the shift to that policy. Additionally, it's being recommended social distance practices be put into place, keeping students and staff three to six feet apart. If you've ever been in any school between any class, you know, it's virtually impossible. And the Ann Arbor school district has already said it knows it won't always be possible. As such, testing is going to become important again because we do have the potential for spread. So how important will COVID testing become this fall and what will be the recommendation?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Well, the good news is, you know, we know a lot more this school did last school year. And, you know, not only for her being able to be in school in person, but for those jobs and other activities that really require being in person. We know that, for example, masks are protective, and we can also make some hopefully different choices with quarantine. Now, of course, anybody that's unvaccinated and exposed to illness, we're still going to want them to quarantine themselves or, you know, to mask up and actively test, so that we can identify those cases. But we do have some flexibility there. For example, with schools, we saw last year and, mind you, universal masking was in place in the schools, but we didn't see a lot of transmission in the classroom and bus setting. You know, these are very controlled settings with masks in place, with distance in place, with a lot of precautions taken, right? So, we're optimistic that we'll continue to see little transmission in those settings compared to our social settings or households and...go ahead.
David Fair: A part of the job of the health department is to anticipate potential public health issues and be as prepared as possible. As we speak today, what, if any, preparations are underway for a possible explosion of new cases among people in the fall and winter?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Yeah, I mean, we're, of course, tired, but doing the best we can to conserve our energy and really look at, you know, it takes a tremendous amount of staff resources for us to not only manage the data and the information, but also that case investigation for each case and the contact tracing to try and make sure we're doing what's called disease control. right? We're identifying those folks that are exposed and putting them on alert or isolating and quarantining that really can effectively reduce spread. And that takes a tremendous amount of staff, time, and resources. So, we continue to look at how we can most effectively scale up when we need to and hopefully not have our staff working, you know, the crazy hours that have been the norm over this last almost two years. So, we're doing a lot of looking at that and how we can scale up and sort of hourly way that we're not having to really put a lot of burden on our existing staff, but be able to do that temporarily and also keeping an eye carefully on things and making sure we have as much prevention in place as possible, so that things aren't worse.
David Fair: [00:12:06] Well, it has been a long two years, and the pandemic nowhere near an end. So, we're going to keep our fingers crossed and hope it plays out exactly, as you have described, best case scenarios. Thank you so much for the time today, Susan. And we'll talk again in the very near future, perhaps as early as next week.
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Right. 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 on today's conversation and to access all COVID-19 related news from both WEMU and NPR, all you have to do is 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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