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Health director urges vaccine

Western Tidewater Health District Director Dr. Todd Wagner urged residents to get a COVID-19 vaccine as the Delta variant accounts for about 90% of all positive cases in Suffolk.

Speaking at City Council’s Sept. 1 meeting, Wagner said there is a very high level of community transmission not only in the city, but also throughout the state.

Case counts, he noted, are exceeding levels seen during surges in January and February. The city’s positivity rate, at 13.9%, is a “significant” rise, he said.

“We thought we saw a leveling off a couple of weeks ago,” Wagner said. “It’s picked up again in the last week to 10 days, so certainly the cases are moving in the wrong direction.”

Virginia’s 4,207 cases reported Sept. 2 was the state’s highest one-day total since early February, while hospitalizations, though not at the higher winter levels, have been steadily increasing since mid-July and are averaging more than 100 per day. Deaths due to COVID-19 statewide, while slowly climbing, are averaging about 21 deaths per seven days, much lower than the highest average 7-day average of 217 March 3.

In the last 10 days, the city is averaging nearly 41 cases per day, with a high of 60 Aug. 24 and 44 Sept. 2. There have been 34 people hospitalized and six deaths in the same time period.

Wagner noted that the number of people in the city fully vaccinated has had a slight uptick, to 44.6%, while that is 54.8% among all adults 18 and up.

Though the Virginia Department of Health still tests for variants, Wagner said health officials assume that current positive cases are from the Delta variant, which is more transmissible and has caused more severe health issues than previous variants.

“We still test for variants, because part of the concern is just how Delta got here,” Wagner said. “We’re concerned with other variants that may come, so we continually sample and test positive cases for other variants. But that also is another key part of getting vaccinated, because the more people you get vaccinated, the less and less risk you run of other variants coming to be, such as Delta.”

From Aug. 20 to Aug. 26, Sentara Obici Hospital used an average of 163.4 of its 181 available inpatient beds, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, with an average of 39.6 people being hospitalized with either confirmed or suspected positive COVID-19 cases. In the previous seven days, it had admitted 38 people with confirmed positive COVID-19 cases. Among Sentara Obici’s 16 intensive care unit beds, it’s using an average of 12 per day (about 75%), with 6.9 of those, on average, being used by adults with either confirmed or suspected positive COVID-19 cases.

“Vaccines continue to be the most key strategy in curbing cases,” Wagner said.

As of Aug. 21, Wagner said unvaccinated people in the city develop infections at a rate of 13.3 times higher than fully vaccinated people, and 2.6 times higher than partially vaccinated people.

“Vaccinations definitely work,” Wagner said. “I know there’s a lot of discussion about breakthrough cases, and those do occur, but there’s still great evidence that would show that the rates of significant disease are much higher in the unvaccinated versus the vaccinated.”

He noted the availability of third doses for the immunocompromised and a third dose to be available Sept. 20 for those who are eight months past their second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech (now called Comirnaty now that it has received full Food and Drug Administration approval) or Moderna vaccines. He said there has not been enough study on the Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccine to determine whether a booster will be offered for it.

Unlike previous guidance that discouraged second doses from being different from their first, Wagner said that because both Pfizer and Moderna are mRNA vaccines, people can choose either one for their third dose, even if they received a different vaccine.

The CDC issued guidance in January that allowed for people to receive a dose each of Pfizer and Moderna — due to their similarities — as long as they were given at least 28 days apart, though it said at the time they were not interchangeable and was to be done only when the same vaccine was not available as a second dose. The CDC, as of Aug. 23, still says the two vaccines are not interchangeable, as data on the safety and efficacy of mixing the two vaccines has not yet been evaluated. Health officials still advise people to receive the same vaccine for the third dose as they got for their first two doses.

People will be able to get a third dose beginning Sept. 20, though Wagner expects that most people will reach the eight-month point around Dec. 26.

Wagner also said to expect FDA approval for a COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer to be available for ages 5 to 11 between September and November.

The Suffolk Health Department will be vaccinating city employees Sept. 10, and also Sept. 17, if needed. City employees who are not fully vaccinated by Oct. 1, or who choose not to share their vaccination status, will be tested for COVID-19 at least twice per month. City Senior Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Brandon Wrobleski is suing the city in Suffolk Circuit Court over the requirement. No hearing date has yet been set.

With flu season coming, Wagner encourages people to get the flu vaccine, which can be done at the same time as a COVID-19 vaccine, he said.