More people in Letcher County got COVID-19 than got the vaccine against it this week.
According to the Centers for Disease Control’s percentages of people who are fully vaccinated, just 64 people in the county got their second dose in the past seven days. According to state statistics, 80 people got COVID over the same time period.
Numbers of the people infected by the virus have shot up over the past two weeks, surpassing levels in mid-January before the vaccines were widely available. And while state statistics have not shown an increase in COVID-related deaths here since early June, at least one doctor said he has seen recent deaths as a result of the virus.
“It takes time for numbers to be reported in the state, but we are definitely seeing more deaths. Definitely, there have been more,” said Dr. Fares Khater, an infectious disease specialist at Mountain Comprehensive Health Corporation in Whitesburg. “The deaths I’ve seen are in unvaccinated people and most of the hospitalizations are in unvaccinated people.”
Khater said the recent surge in COVID cases, the hospitalizations and the deaths, are directly related to the low vaccination rate in the county, and the Delta variant, a mutation of the SARS-CoV2 virus.
“ The Delta variant is more efficiently transmitted than the Alpha variant by 60 percent,” Khater said. “Based on the number of cases we’re seeing, the number of hospitalizations, and the sickness, I have no doubt in my mind that the Delta variant is the cause.”
There are three vaccines now authorized for emergency use, but just 38.7 percent of the people here are fully vaccinated. While the vaccine is not authorized for children under 12, the number of people who are eligible and are getting the vaccine has slowed to a trickle. The percentage of people fully vaccinated has increased by less than one percentage point in the past month.
COVID vaccinations have lagged even while the number of cases have increased greatly.
On July 20, the total number of positive cases that had been identified in Letcher County was 2,021. This Tuesday, July 27, the number was 2,201. The increase was enough to push Letcher County’s incident rate to 51 per 100,000, the fourth highest in the state. Only Clay, Jackson, and Floyd were higher.
“We know there is no vaccine that is 100 percent effective, but even if you are vaccinated and you get COVID-19, you will have a very mild illness – an insignificant illness,” Khater said.
The increase in cases led to some discussion of pushing back the beginning of school from next week, however, the Letcher County Board of Education voted 3-1 to restart as planned on August 4. Everyone will be required to wear masks at school, regardless of whether they have been vaccinated. The schools will also offer vaccinations at the high school during registration the remainder of the week.
Khater said everyone – even those who have been vaccinated – should return to wearing masks, but that children under 12 are particularly vulnerable because they are not yet eligible to get the shots. He advised that anyone who is unvaccinated should also continue to practice social distancing and frequent, thorough hand washing.
“If you have not been vaccinated yet and are eligible to get vaccinated, please get vaccinated as soon as possible,” Khater said. “If you have any questions about the vaccine, talk to your healthcare provider – not to the social media, not to these fear-mongering websites or media, but talk to your healthcare provider.”
Khater said all children and adults in school should be masked and continue social distancing as much as possible. He said the young people who have not been vaccinated are now catching the virus, passing it on to parents and grandparents at home. The older people are then becoming very sick, Khater said.
National health experts are also saying the Delta variant makes those young people sicker than the previous variations of the virus did. Khater said that had been unusual in the past, but is now becoming the norm.