With cases of COVID-19 once again increasing, people in the Blue Ridge Health District are encouraged to wear a mask when indoors and get vaccinated if they are eligible and haven’t done so.
During an hour-long town hall Thursday, area pediatricians and health district officials fielded questions about the delta variant, vaccinations, staying safe while traveling and mask wearing, especially with the start of the school year approaching.
The town hall came after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that vaccinated Americans in areas with high transmission resume wearing masks while indoors. Cases locally, in Virginia and across the country have been rising, fueled by a much more contagious variant of the virus known as delta. CDC research has shown that vaccinated individuals can spread the delta variant.
To find out more information about COVID, testing sites or vaccinations, call the health district’s hotline at (434) 972-6261or email BRhealthdistrict@gmail.com.
Albemarle County said Thursday that starting Monday, it will require face masks in the County Office Buildings on McIntire Road and Fifth Street Extended and in county-operated facilities, such as community centers, regardless of vaccination status.
Albemarle and several surrounding counties have either high or substantial transmission rates, according to the CDC.
“So now I wear a mask when I go out to the grocery store or go out to a public setting,” BRHD Director Dr. Denise Bonds said during the town hall. “I think that’s just good practice, knowing how rapidly spreading the delta variant is and that I don’t want to be responsible for spreading it to somebody else.”
Bonds also appeared at the Charlottesville School Board later in the day to answer questions about the delta variant, COVID testing and reopening schools.
Bonds told board members that getting students back to school in person was critical.
“It was a tragedy last year that so many of our kids really lost that opportunity to be in a classroom with their peers and their teacher and socialize,” she said, encouraging families with children 12 or older to get them vaccinated.
The COVID vaccine has not yet been approved for children 11 or younger.
Last week, the CDC recommended universal indoor masking for K-12 schools. The Albemarle and Charlottesville school divisions have said they’ll follow that recommendation, but not all school systems in the state have done so.
Gov. Ralph Northam said during a press conference Thursday that school boards don’t have a choice because of a new state law that requires school districts to provide five days a week of in-person instruction that adheres to the CDC’s recommended strategies.
“I expect schools to follow [the law] and if they choose not to follow it, they should have a frank discussion with their legal counsel,” Northam said.
Town hall panelist Dr. Paige Perriello, with Pediatric Associates of Charlottesville, said several area pediatrician groups have been talking with school systems that have decided to make masks optional, encouraging them to change course.
“Kids under the age of 12 did everything in the world with the mask on last year,” she said. “We don’t think it’s risky for them to be in the mask, and that’s been a confusing source of information in the last month or so. If your comfort level is to send your child in a mask, we don’t think that’s dangerous for them to be in that mask to do those activities.”
Dr. Jeff Vergales, a pediatric cardiologist with the University of Virginia Medical Center, said that masking was most effective when everyone in a school building was wearing one but that it’s not the only mitigation strategy that works. Other strategies include social distancing and improving ventilation in school buildings.
“It’s the layering of the mitigation strategies that seems to be the most effective tool for curbing spread,” he said.
Vergales and other panelists remained confident in the ability of those mitigation measures to limit the spread of the virus in school settings, pointing to studies conducted during the last academic year.
“We have loads of data now coming in from the pandemic in the last year that mitigation strategies in schools work,” Vergales said. “Not only do they work, but schools were not the mass spreader events that your house would be, that family gatherings would be, that other things like that otherwise exist.”
Perriello and Vergales said the delta variant doesn’t seem to be affecting children more than other strains of the COVID-19 virus.
“We are very fortunate that most [infected] kids, especially under the age of 12, continue to have mild illness,” Perriello said. “But we are watching it really closely.”
Since July 1, the health district has recorded 490 new cases after seeing a decline in cases thanks to relatively high vaccination rates in the area that allowed people to return to a version of pre-pandemic normalcy.
So far, about 61.8% of people eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine have received at least one shot. The health district is continuing to offer shots at the former J.Crew store at Fashion Square mall, local health departments and mobile clinics to ensure people who want access to the vaccine can receive it.
In response to the increase in cases and demand, the health district is ramping up its testing capacity to offer more free testing events more frequently during the week.
“Testing is still widely available and important during this time to limit the spread in our community,” said Jason Elliott, deputy public information officer for the health district.
According to UVa researchers, as late as June the delta variant accounted for only about 10% of new COVID-19 cases in the United States, but by the end of that month, it reached 30%, and as of July, it made up 90% of all new cases.
Researchers are calling the resurgence the fifth wave of COVID-19, citing a 480% increase in daily cases of COVID-19 since the low point in new infections reported on June 19.
As of the end of July, the SARS-CoV-2 virus variant known as alpha was still the predominant cause of COVID-19 in Virginia, but researchers expect that to change. Delta has been found in the state, as has a variation on the delta variant, known as delta plus.
“There is some preliminary data that maybe this delta plus variant is even more transmissible than the standard delta, but that’s pretty preliminary at this point,” said Dr. Patrick Jackson, an infectious disease expert with the UVa Medical Center. “The overall message is that the delta variant arose after 19 months of mutation. There’s no proof that SARS-CoV-2 has reached a plateau in terms of its transmissibility, and additional variants are likely to arise over time, so the idea that there might be another variant that’s even more transmissible than delta is certainly plausible.”
Jackson made his comments in a virtual press conference Thursday. He said COVID-19 is likely to be around for some time as the virus mutates.
“We’ve only known about this virus for about 19 months so there’s still a lot to know,” he said. “I think that the most likely scenario is that COVID 19 will remain with us as a respiratory pathogen among the population much like influenza continues to do, and vaccination will continue to be a major emphasis.”
Dr. Reid Adams, director of clinical affairs for the UVa Medical Center, said COVID cases treated at the hospital have increased in the past two months.
“We were running around eight to 10 patients with COVID-19 and we’re now running in the range of 15 to 20,” Adams said at the UVa press conference. “We’re seeing an uptick in the number of people requiring hospitalizations.”
Hospital officials said those patients hospitalized have, so far, been unvaccinated. Studies show the delta variant has made its way past vaccine defenses to cause what are known as breakthrough cases in vaccinated people.
Those cases tend to be more mild or asymptomatic and seldom result in hospitalization or death, but studies show vaccinated people who are infected can easily spread the virus to others.
“As for the effectiveness of the vaccines, in terms of being hospitalized because of the virus or dying because of the virus, the vaccines are holding up even in the face of delta,” Jackson said.
“On the other hand, if we’re asking how effective the vaccines are at preventing any infection at all, or preventing transmission from person to person, I think there is some concern that the vaccines may be less effective in the face of delta. There could be multiple reasons for that finding and changes of behavior are going to show up in that data, as well. All in all, after six months, these vaccines are holding up nicely.”