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Health officials tout vaccines as best measure for dealing with delta variant surge

By Richard Rourk

Being vaccinated, according to Unicoi County Health Department Director Michelle Ramsey, is the best way to protect one’s self, loved ones and the public from the COVID-19 virus.

The Erwin Record reached out to Ramsey and the local health department for an update on COVID-19 in the region after updated guidelines regarding mask wearing were issued recently by the Center for Disease Control in the wake of a new nationwide surge in cases.

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“COVID-19 vaccines are the most effective way to manage risk against COVID-19, including the delta variant, and we encourage Tennesseans to prioritize vaccination,” Ramsey said. 

“It is always good practice to wash your hands often, cover your cough and clean and sanitize high touch surfaces,” Ramsey added.

“Mask-wearing will remain a choice for individuals as they evaluate their own unique circumstances, such as being high-risk or immunocompromised,” Ramsey said.

To maximize protection from the delta variant and prevent possibly spreading it to others, the CDC modified guidelines on mask wearing, which had been eased earlier in the summer for vaccinated individuals. Now, the CDC’s website advised that all individuals wear a mask indoors in public if in an area of substantial or high transmission.

On a map tracking the transmission rates of the virus across the country, both Tennessee and Unicoi County are rated high. 

The CDC is now advising people to wear a mask indoors, even if they have been vaccinated due to the rising number of cases of COVID-19.

According to the latest update to CDC.gov, here are safer activities for families to practice.

• If fully vaccinated, individuals can participate in many of the activities that they did before the pandemic.

• To maximize protection from the delta variant and prevent possibly spreading it to others, wear a mask indoors in public if present in an area of substantial or high transmission.

• Wearing a mask is most important if individuals have a weakened immune system or if, because of one’s age or an underlying medical condition, one is at increased risk for severe disease, or if someone in your household has a weakened immune system, is at increased risk for severe disease or is unvaccinated. If these areas apply to individuals or their household, choose to wear a mask regardless of the level of transmission in one’s area.

• Continue to wear a mask where required by laws, rules, regulations or local guidance.

One of the believed causes for the rise in COVID-19 cases country wide is the recent spread of the more contagious delta variant of the virus. 

“We do know the delta variant is more contagious than other variants that have been presented to this point,” Ramsey said. “The COVID-19 vaccines are showing to be effective against the variants including the delta variant, so we encourage those who are eligible for a vaccine to get one. We provide variant-specific cases, by public health region, in the Critical Indicators Report. That report is updated weekly and can be found at https://www.tn.gov/health/cedep/ncov.html.

The Unicoi County Health Department is still offering COVID-19 vaccines to those who have not been vaccinated. 

“Appointments are not required,” Ramsey said. “Individuals seeking vaccination may visit the health department Monday through Friday between 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. to receive a COVID-19 vaccine or call (423) 743-9103 for information. Information is also accessible at https://covid19.tn.gov/.”

Ramsey said she is amazed by how well her team and the community has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic so far. 

“We are proud of our entire team at the Unicoi County Health Department and their ability to continue to be flexible in carrying out our mission to protect and promote the health and prosperity of people in Tennessee,” Ramsey said. “We are also grateful for our community partners who have stood side-by-side with the health department in responding to the pandemic. We are thankful for the support of the entire community as we all work together to protect our neighbors, friends, family and coworkers.”

As of Friday, July 30, Unicoi County had 25 active cases of COVID-19. According to the Tennessee Department of Health’s COVID-19 Data Dashboard, there have been 50 COVID-19-related deaths in Unicoi County.

Unicoi County currently has 40.49 percent of its population fully vaccinated with 44.79 percent of its population having at least one of the two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. These figures are far below the levels experts contend will be needed to achieve herd immunity from the contagious disease.

On Friday, July 30, Ballad Health recorded 72 COVID-19 inpatients in its regional hospitals, a considerable leap from the 49 COVID-positive patients receiving care on Friday, July 23, and more than triple the number being treated on July 5.

Additionally, from July 18-24, the health system diagnosed 679 people with COVID-19, marking a 403% increase in weekly cases since mid-June. The region’s testing positivity rate has also climbed to 12.4%, up from 3.4% in early July and a far cry from the 5% goal.

Since March, 95% of the COVID-19-related deaths at Ballad Health have been patients with either no history of COVID-19 vaccination or an incomplete dose of the vaccine. Similarly, 95% of COVID-19 patients admitted to Ballad Health facilities since March are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated.

The health system has experienced a significant decline in the number of vaccines administered in its community vaccination center and mobile vaccination clinics. Ballad Health administered 272 first doses and 181 second doses in June, but only 72 first doses and 100 second doses by  July 27.

In Northeast Tennessee, as of July 30, Washington County has 273 active positive cases of COVID-19 with 255 related deaths. Sullivan County has 273 active cases and 316 reported deaths. Greene County has 146 active cases and 160 deaths. Hawkins County has 114 active cases and 115 deaths. Carter County has 89 active cases and 163 deaths, while Johnson County is reporting 24 active cases of COVID-19 and 39 deaths.

There have been 731,702 confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 and 10,269 deaths as a result of the virus in the State of Tennessee, according to the Tennessee Department of Health.

According to the CDC, as of July 30, the United States has had 34,926,462 positive cases and 610,873 deaths due to COVID-19 since Jan. 21, 2020.