COVID cases are still on the rise in Washtenaw County. It's not time to let your guard down
The number of COVID-19 cases in Washtenaw County have been trending up for awhile and have gotten worse in the past couple of weeks, according to Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, communications and health promotion administrator for the Washtenaw County Public Health Department.
She talks to WEMU's Lisa Barry about the latest involving the pandemic in the local community.
Lisa Barry: Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, and we continue to ride the roller coaster of cases and community spread. This is Lisa Barry, and with the holidays quickly approaching, it may still be confusing to many people to know what the best and healthiest protocols are. So we're checking in with Washtenaw County Public Health Department Communications and Health Promotion Administrator Susan Ringler-Cerniglia. Thanks for talking to us.
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Absolutely. Thanks for having us.
Lisa Barry: Where are we with the rate of COVID-19 cases in Washtenaw County?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Well, unfortunately, locally, things don't look so good. We've been trending up for a while now, and things got a bit worse here in the last couple of weeks. So, cases are up, hospitalizations are up. So none of that's looking good. Not quite as bad in as other areas of Michigan, but definitely not looking good.
Lisa Barry: What would your advice be then to people who are back moving out in the community, going back to work, or going to the movies, or eating in restaurants. Is that OK, or is that contributing to the increase?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Well, it's challenging. And, unfortunately, you know, I'm tired of saying it, people are tired of hearing it, but the advice hasn't changed, right? What we've learned about this virus and what we know at this point as the vaccination makes a huge difference. So, that provides both that individual protection, as well as reduces the likelihood of getting ill or spreading it. It's obviously not perfect. You can still become ill. That illness is much less likely to happen and more likely to be not as severe to use a lot of, like, we've been there.
Lisa Barry: Yeah.
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: So, that's first and foremost, right? That vaccination. And then, second to that, when we have transmission high like we do, there's a lot of virus spreading actively in the community, we really need to layer up those other prevention strategies. Again, bearing in mind that nothing is 100 percent effective. No single thing is going to be the be all end all. And that's why we have multiple of them, right? Like, the mask can effectively reduce spread, especially if you're indoors. Ventilation is important. So, staying outside, if you can, which, of course, gets much trickier this time of year. Handwashing is always important just in general for preventing the spread of viruses or other illnesses. That isolation and quarantine matters. You know, it's still true that people that have known exposure are more likely to become ill, and people that are either ill or test positive really do need to stay away from others. So, all of those things still matter, and we need to rely on them and do what we can to reduce overall spread.
Lisa Barry: Last time I checked the numbers, the percentage of so-called breakthrough cases of people getting COVID after being vaccinated was on the rise. Is that trend continuing?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: We primarily track that with our hospitalizations because that's where we really have the opportunity to look more closely at vaccine status. And we do see the majority of our hospitalizations happening, either in unvaccinated folks or also in the folks who have multiple vulnerabilities. So, they may be vaccinated, but they might have other health conditions or they're much older. And so, we still do see that severe illness impacting them. But we also see younger people, and by younger, I mean, like in our 50s or 60s, those hospitalizations tend to be primarily unvaccinated. I mean, overall, a couple of the complicating factors with the spread is, of course, the variant. We have a variant that is more contagious now. And when cases are high, a lot of spread, a lot of exposure is happening, we're going to get more illness among vaccinated people. So, those things are combining, leading to more big breakthrough cases. It's still true that the majority of those breakthrough cases tend not to be as severe, and the vaccine does reduce the chances of becoming ill.
Lisa Barry: Speaking of younger people, how is the process of vaccinating children between the ages of five and 11 going?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: It's going great. We are off to a very good start here in Washtenaw. We are among the counties with the highest rate of initiation. So we have, as of yesterday, some 25 percent of our kiddos and that five to 11 that have started the vaccination, and that's compared with only about eight percent overall. So, off to a fantastic start. There is lots of opportunity at pediatrician's offices, pharmacies, at the health department to get that vaccination. And, of course, if parents or guardians have questions, there's lots of good information out there, and we highly recommend talking to your pediatrician or health care professional.
Lisa Barry: In about a week, a lot of people will be gathering for Thanksgiving--a month later for Christmas or Hanukkah. How concerned should you be about children who are celebrating with you that are not vaccinated?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Well, I'd still be very concerned if you're having get-togethers with folks that are either unvaccinated, not fully vaccinated, or more vulnerable. So, those older adults, those young kids who maybe have only gotten one dose, that to consider some smaller gatherings, to consider maybe mask use indoors if possible, and really take time to understand when you're gathering who is or isn't vaccinated and to the degree possible, what are the additional vulnerabilities? It'd be great to say, you know, we can go ahead and gather and have some normalcy. However, it's just not the way things are, and we, really with transmission this high, with the colder weather in Michigan, with people doing lots of other types of gatherings and activities, we really have to think about those additional precautions.
Lisa Barry: I think a lot of people are asking the same question that I've been asking, which seems like from the very beginning. When is it over? And I think a lot of people in our minds are like, "We're just done. We can't do this anymore." And do you think that's impacting what's happening health-wise?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: You know, it's very difficult to know how much in this we have control over, right? In many ways, like we're talking about staying away from others, using quarantine, using those additional measures, taking some precautions, we have lots of control over that. It's hard to say how much that's impacting trends overall. Some of this is certainly outside of our control. But we do know that those things matter. So, we have to believe, even though it's hard, I mean, I feel what you're saying very, very deeply, right? We all want this to be over. We are all very tired, and it's not what we expect with an emergency, or even an outbreak, for it to just go on and on like this. But this virus has some elements that continue to make that possible, right? The more it circulates, the more it's going to change and get around our defenses. The more we disagree and don't rely on good public health practice that can offer the most protection to the most people, the more we're going to have complications trying to make that guidance work for us all. If we don't follow it, it obviously doesn't work.
Lisa Barry: So am I hearing you saying, "Don't let your guard down yet? Stay strong. Hang in there."
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Definitely don't let your guard down, yeah. As much as I don't want to say it and I don't want to hear myself say it, we are absolutely not done with this. The activity measures, you know, are approaching some of the highest peaks in our earlier waves. So, to think that this somehow is not as important, not as big as earlier waves is simply not true. Now, is hospitalization different because we do have the vaccination on board? It is. And you can see that much more in those hospitalizations, right? Primarily unvaccinated people or people with more underlying conditions are most impacted. So, a couple of things are very important from that, right? Get vaccinated if you are not, and if you are at additional risk, get that booster on board. We are unfortunately seeing some of our older adults, for example, that haven't got those boosters on board getting hospitalized. So, we know that that immunity can, in fact, decrease over time, and we know there are some increased vulnerability there. So definitely important to get that booster, get that vaccination if you're not. And think about those additional prevention measures and layering them up. We just, unfortunately, have to keep doing that if we want to prevent the most serious outcomes.
Lisa Barry: I've heard some confusing information. Do you get the booster at six or eight months, or what's the timing for that?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: It has to be at least six months, so it can be any time after that.
Lisa Barry: And what is happening with the flu in Washtenaw County?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Well, what we have locally is a pretty substantial outbreak, primarily among our college-aged young people and primarily at the University of Michigan. So, this is not necessarily unusual in terms of timing. We do often see activity starting to happen this time of year. What is unusual is that the size of this outbreak is it's very, very substantial--over 500 that we know of right now. So, that could tell us a couple of things, right? It might, for example, mean that more people are getting tested. They're getting that respiratory illness, and perhaps because of COVID, they're seeking care, and we're finding out that it's influenza. It also could mean that there's just more flu circulating this year, and we're going to see a more severe flu season. So, the most important thing for us is to remind folks of that flu vaccination and getting it on board. Just like we've been talking about with COVID, that flu vaccination is very, very important to reducing the severity of the illness and hopefully preventing that hospitalization or death. Also, with flu, we know it's most important for those younger folks and the older folks, anyone with underlying health conditions, pregnant women to get that on board.
Lisa Barry: Susan Ringler-Cerniglia from the Washtenaw County Public Health Department. Always grateful for what you can share with our listeners here on 89 One WEMU.
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Thanks for having us.
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