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Pandemic is far from over, local doc cautions

There is no doubt that the number of COVID-19 cases is falling, or that rapid distribution of vaccines since January has helped. But experts say there is also no doubt that the pandemic that has killed more than 610,000 people in the U.S. and 3.5 million worldwide is far from over.

If 100 people are in one place In Letcher County, one likely has COVID-19. At the end of December, the same size group would likely have included 14 people who were positive for COVID.

While the figures illustrate how much the risk of COVID has fallen since vaccines began being widely distributed in late January, that same reduction in numbers may be giving people a false sense of security when it comes to contracting the disease.

“So many young adults and adolescents have not been vaccinated,” Dr. Fares Khater said. “These people are going to be partying, and in crowds.”

Khater, an infectious disease specialist at Mountain Comprehensive Health Corporation, said a combination of vaccines, masking that was used until recently, social distancing, and beginning of warmer weather have all contributed to the drop in infections. People are 22 times more likely to catch the infection indoors than out. But, he said the return to full capacity restaurants, concerts, and other activities are likely to cause more problems, especially in fall when more and more events are held inside.

“ We are not by any means out of this,” he said.

The positivity rate, which is the percentage of people tested who get positive results, is different from the incident rate, which is the average number of people who test positive over a seven-day period based on population, but normalized as a rate per 100,000 people so numbers can be compared between vastly different size areas.

On December 29, two days after thefirst vaccines were administered here, the incident rate in Letcher County was 77.2 per 100,000. This Friday, the incident rate was 2.7 per 100,000. But by Tuesday, three days after the start of the Memorial Day weekend, the number had crept to 3.3 per 100,000.

Khater said about 70 percent of the population has had at least one shot, but only about 40 percent has had both shots. In order to achieve herd immunity, the percentage of fully vaccinated persons needs to increase. While the vaccine was just approved about three weeks ago for young teens ages 12-18 and the low vaccination rate among that group is understandable, the vaccination rate is still low in the 18-30 group, which has had the vaccine available since January. It improves a little with each decade of age above that until it is nearly at the target percentage in the over 65 group.

“We need to vaccinate the younger people, and most of them are not being vaccinated,” he said.

Khater said patients and friends have been calling him to asking if he plans to vaccinate his own children, and Khater said he tells them that he absolutely will as soon as the vaccine is available to them.

“When the vaccine is authorized for 6 months to 12 years, I will definitely have my kids vaccinated,” he said.

Pfizer/BioNTech has already applied for emergency use authorization for that group, but the Food and Drug Administration has not yet issued an authorization. It has also asked for full approval of the vaccine for the other age groups.

The latest COVID-19 statistics for Letcher and the surrounding counties in Kentucky and Virginia are as follows:

Knott – Total 1,149 (24 dead, incident rate 1.0, percent vaccinated 30.5); Lee – Total 1,289 (26 dead, incident rate 1.9, percent vaccinated 30.4); Leslie – Total 937 (8 dead, incident rate 15.9, percent vaccinated 32.2); Letcher – Total 1,935 (45 dead, incident rate 3.3, percent vaccinated 34.7); Owsley – Total 504 ( 16 dead, incident rate 12.9, percent vaccinated 28.5); Perry – Total 2,697 (66 dead, incident rate 8.3, percent vaccinated 38.8)

Wolfe – Total 535 ( 6 dead, incident rate 0.0, 33.5 percent vaccinated ).

Harlan – Total 2,901 (85 dead, 11.0 incident rate, percent vaccinated 28.8 )

Pike – Total 5,645 (103 dead, incident rate 3.9, percent vaccinated 34.2)

Wise Co., VA – Total 3,240 (168 hospitalized, 100 dead, percent vaccinated 17.3)

Norton, VA – Total 290 (19 hospitalized, 7 dead, percent vaccinated not available)

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