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Health officials urge vaccines

Current COVID-19 vaccine outreach efforts are not working.

It’s something state vaccine coordinator Dr. Danny Avula did not want to admit, but understands to be true.

Across the state, 54.6% of all residents ages 12 and up are fully vaccinated. But that percentage is lower in Western Tidewater communities, particularly in Southampton County.

There, just 37.8% of residents eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine are fully vaccinated, while in Suffolk, 42% of eligible residents are fully vaccinated, 43% are fully vaccinated in Franklin, 46.6% in Surry County and 48.3% in Isle of Wight County.

Avula said statewide, there are about 14,000 doses being administered per day, up by 3,000 over the state’s low point in vaccinations. Vaccinations slowed significantly in June, he said, before slowing increasing later in July and early August.

“While I’d love to say that because of our increased outreach efforts and our really thoughtful campaigns,” Avula said, “I think the reality is that Delta, and the fact that this is a more contagious disease, that it is causing cases to surge, hospitalizations to increase across the country, has put vaccinations back on the radar for many Virginians.”

Despite that, he said outreach efforts will continue, as local health departments show up at events and do what they can to make vaccines as accessible and as easy to get as possible.

“Right now, vaccination is our best option to protect us against severe disease,” Avula said. “So even though the Delta variant is extremely contagious, even though we are starting to see more breakthrough cases, what we’re consistently seeing is that fully vaccinated people are protected against the severe consequences of the Delta variant.”

Breakthrough cases are ones in which a fully vaccinated person is diagnosed with COVID-19. Vaccinations, Peake said, help minimize the chance of mutations.

Avula expects a COVID-19 vaccine for those ages 5 to 11 could be ready by September, and he also expects the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine for adults to receive full approval from the Food and Drug Administration soon. He also said it is likely that a third dose of two-dose vaccines will be recommended for people who are immuno-compromised.

Avula said the state is working to develop a way for state residents to download a QR code that would allow them to prove they have been vaccinated. It should be active in the next two to three weeks, he said.

Currently, residents can print a PDF proof of vaccination from the Virginia Department of Health website (https://vase.vdh.virginia.gov/recordrequest.html). Avula said the state would not be issuing any vaccine passports or providing guidelines for how they should be used, but said more private and public sector employers are asking for proof of vaccinations.

Dr. Lilian Peake, deputy director of the state health department’s office of epidemiology, said COVID-19 cases across the state have been increasing for more than a month, and is 30% higher this week than last.

In the last seven days, the state has recorded 11,379 positive COVID-19 cases, including 1,759 Aug. 10 (recorded from 5:01 p.m. Aug. 8 through 5 p.m. Aug. 9), with the number of hospitalizations nearly doubling in the last week — from 396 Aug. 1 to 770 Aug. 10, with 80% of cases in which variants have been identified being the Delta variant.

“Because the Delta variant is more infectious, a higher percentage of the community needs to be vaccinated to interrupt that spread from person to person,” Peake said. “The vaccination rate in the U.S., and in Virginia, isn’t high enough yet to curb that spread.”

In Suffolk, which has the highest overall case counts and the highest positivity rate among Western Tidewater localities at 12.11%, has had 227 cases in the past week, including 44 Aug. 4 and 42 Aug. 10. The city had not seen more than 40 cases in a day since February. Over the same time period, there have been 14 hospitalizations and no deaths reported. Since July, four city residents have died from COVID-19. Hospitalizations and deaths are considered to be lagging indicators since it can take several weeks from the onset of COVID-19 to happen — if those things occur.

No deaths from COVID-19 have been reported in Surry since March 16, while the county has reported just one hospitalization — on Aug. 10 — since March 14. In Isle of Wight, there have been 72 positive COVID-19 cases in the past week, with two people having been hospitalized.

Franklin has seen 16 cases in the past week, though no one there has been hospitalized since July 31 and no deaths have been reported since June 10. Southampton has reported 12 cases in the past week, with no hospitalizations reported since Aug. 3 and no deaths due to COVID-19 reported since June 8.

The surge in cases, Peake said, is coming mostly in areas with lower vaccination rates.

“When the virus is spreading rapidly like it is now, we will see more cases,” Peake said. “And we’ll also see some more vaccine breakthrough cases. But that doesn’t mean the vaccines aren’t working. The vaccines do work for all the variants that are circulating in the United States, including Delta.”

She said the vaccines work “extremely well” to protect people from being hospitalized or dying.

“There’s also a reality that this is still transmissible, that the bulk of our population will likely be exposed to the Delta variant at some point in the next few months,” Avula said. “And they’re either going to be exposed to it fully vaccinated, or they’re not.

“And so I think it’s possible that we get to a place where we have 90% to 95% of the population who have immunity, either through a vaccination or through natural immunity as a result of having contracted the disease. And clearly, we would much prefer that people have their vaccinations because it means that we just won’t see as steep a total of hospitalization and death.”