Whitesburg KY

Spike in local COVID-19 cases slows, but resistance to vaccine is now growing



A sudden spike in COVID 19 cases in the county seems to have subsided, and the county’s infection rate has dropped again back to a 3.3, or yellow, level.

The county has seen 23 new cases of the virus this week, considerably less than the prior week when there were 27 cases in a single day. The health department has not identified a cause for the spike in cases, but said a handful were from reconciliation of previous cases at the nursing home that had not been accounted for. This appears to have increased the numbers by only three.

There have been just two new cases in the county since Saturday.

Officials are monitoring what happens over the next week.The incubation period for COVID can range from five to 14 days, and students just returned to school from spring break.

Superintendent Denise Yonts said since students returned from the extended school closure in February, the district has been nearly COVID-free. About a third of students are attending in-person classes, with the rest still attending virtual school at home.

“Students have been great to wear their masks and follow the guidelines. We have had only one case where we have had to quarantine a whole group, and it turned out none of them actually got COVID,” she said.

The remainder of Letcher County School District students who have been attending virtual classes will return to the classroom next Friday for annual testing.

The move won’t be a permanent change, and there are no plans to return school to a five-day schedule before school ends May 4, Yonts said.

At least 70 percent of school staff have received two shots of vaccine, and the number is thought to be higher because of staff members who received their vaccines outside the mass vaccinations offered by the schools. Meanwhile Pfizer has asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve its vaccine for teens ages 12-15. The company says trials on that age group proved the vaccine to be 100 percent effective.

In Letcher County, the number of people vaccinated is steadily rising with 28.9 percent of the population now fully vaccinated, 36.8 percent of the population over 18 years of age has been fully vaccinated, and 58.6 percent of those over 65 have completed their vaccinations. Those figures are up over 4 percent in a week for those over 18 and those over 65.

While Letcher County ranks seventh in the state in the percentage of the total population and the population over 18 fully vaccinated, the county skews toward the younger end of the age range. While the 58.6 percent of those over 65 are vaccinated here, that places the county 39th in the state. In Franklin County, which ranks first, 77 percent of the same age group has been fully vaccinated. In Perry County, 68.6 percent of those over 65 are fully vaccinated.

Mike Caudill, chief executive officer of Mountain Comprehensive Health Corporation, said he does not have any insight into the differences in age groups, but said the demand for the vaccine in general is dying down from when it was first offered.

“We do know that we have basically given it to most everyone who has requested to get the vaccine,” he said.

He said on a snowy day in January, the clinic had 50 appointments for people ages 70 and over, and all 50 showed up. Now, he said, any day that they have appointments they can expect no-shows and have to offer those doses to others.

MCHC is doing outreach with its vans, taking the vaccine to stores, offices or other locations where people ask them to be. On Tuesday, MCHC employees had a table set up on the sidewalk outside the Letcher County Courthouse to offer the shots.

“We’re trying to reach out and make sure everybody has a chance to get the vaccine if they want it,” he said. “I think we have to recognize there’s a lot of resistance to the vaccine.”

That resistance may have been made worse by news about a small number of persons who had blood clots after taking the Johnson

& Johnson vaccine, and the Astra-Zeneca vaccine, and a manufacturing error at a plant making the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for quality control testing. The Astra-Zeneca vaccine is not yet available in the U.S., but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has recommended a hold on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine until the blood clot issue can be examined.

Caudill said MCHC won’t be administering it anymore until the Centers for Disease Control gives the OK, but he noted that there have been only six instances of blood clots reported out of 6.8 million doses of Johnson & Johnson. administered in the U.S.

Scott Lockard, Kentucky River District Director of Public Health, said the health department is also pausing Johnson & Johnson vaccinations.

“A lot of people are waiting for Johnson & Johnson because they just want to do one shot, so obviously we’re concerned with the pause we’re being asked to take with it,” he said.

Lockard said the health department is offering the Moderna shot to people who had requested Johnson & Johnson.

MCHC also will continue to give the other vaccines as they arrive, but it might make it more diffcult to arrange second doses for those who get the shots at remote locations. Caudill, who took the Moderna vaccine, still recommends that people take the shots.

“I was the first one to get it at MCHC, and it certainly makes me feel better about getting out,” he said. “I still wear a mask, use hand sanitizer and stay away from large groups, but I do feel better about being out.”

In addition to MCHC, vaccines continue to be available at Whitesburg Appalachian Regional Hospital, MCHC clinics, Pine Mountain Pharmacy at Ermine and Walgreens at Jenkins, and Letcher County residents can get their vaccines at Pikeville Medical Center as well.

While the number of new cases of COVID-19 here is down, the number of deaths has continued to rise incrementally. The state reported another death on Saturday, bringing the total to 42.

As of Tuesday, statistics from the states of Kentucky and Virginia for Letcher and the surrounding counties in Kentucky are as follows:

Knott – Total 1,127 (22 dead, incident rate 3.9, percent vaccinated 24.3 ); Lee – Total 1,260 (23 dead, incident rate 9.6, percent vaccinated 20.8); Leslie – Total 876 (6 dead, incident rate 9.6, percent vaccinated 24.8); Letcher – Total 1,852 (42 dead, incident rate 3.3, percent vaccinated 28.9); Owsley – Total 487 (12 dead, incident rate 65, percent vaccinated 20.8); Perry – Total 2,581 (62 dead, incident rate 13.9, percent vaccinated 30); Wolfe – Total 477 (5 dead, incident rate 18.0, percent vaccinated 23.7); Harlan – Total 2,670 (81 dead, 43.9 incident rate, percent vaccinated 20.2); Pike – Total 5,409 (85 dead, incident rate 7.2, percent vaccinated 29.7); Wise County, Va. – Total 3,002 (157 hospitalized, 93 dead, percent vaccinated 10.6); Norton, Va. – Total 263 (18 hospitalized, 7 dead, percent vaccinated not available).

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