COVID cases in Merced County are on the rise again as shown by the positivity rate, and with the Winter surge and the holidays beginning, the Merced County Public Health Department feels it is a cause for serious concern.
Fortunately, the vaccine for ages 5 through 11 is approved, and vaccination remains the best way to prevent the disease.
Dr. Kristynn Sullivan, Merced County’s supervising epidemiologist, told the Times, “As of yesterday [Nov. 1], we had 43,784 laboratory-confirmed cases.
“The number of cases in our community has always been an underestimate for several reasons — people just don’t get tested, or they might not test their kid, or a lot of times, people don’t want to test because they don’t want to miss work or whatever the case may be. We think it might be more so now because there are a lot more ways to get tested, such as Walgreens or CVS home tests, and those are not usually reported to us. Nevertheless, it’s still a good metric to look at.
“One thing we do like to look at is test positivity which shows of the people getting tested, how many are positive, so if not a lot are getting tested, we can still see generally what the disease spread is in the community. Unfortunately, what we’ve seen recently is our test positivity is going up again. It had gotten as low as 8.1 percent. Now, it’s 9.2 percent.
“We are seeing a weird wave pattern with new daily cases in that instead of going down steadily, the cases go down and stay on a plateau and after staying stable for awhile, go down again.
“Last year, we went into Winter with 15 or 20 cases a day before the Winter surge. With this particular wave, the lowest we’ve gotten is 77 cases on average per day, and we’ve gotten up to 99 cases a day.
“This Winter surge is starting off at a much, much higher level than it did last year, and it’s cause for a lot of concern.
“The reason COVID is still being transmitted at this high a rate is we don’t have enough people vaccinated — the vaccination rate is 43.6 percent of our total population, and it’s 53 percent of the current eligible age 12 and older group, and that leaves a lot of opportunity to spread COVID.
“For this to be controlled, we’re looking at herd immunity at 70 percent, so we’re still a long way off from herd immunity, and the other thing is Delta changed the game because it’s so much more infectious. The vaccine is protecting against hospitalizations and fatalities, but Delta is so much more infectious that it leads to less efficacy because we’re still seeing a lot of transmission.
“More COVID is being transmitted because of the highly infectious Delta Variant, the low vaccination rate, and the fact there’s no consistent usage of other types of non-pharmaceutical intervention to reduce the risk of getting COVID, meaning no one is wearing masks much any more and social distancing is not being practiced.
“Just like in driving, the things you do to protect yourself safeguard you from risk, such as keeping enough distance between your car and the next, staying alert, and not driving when tired, and we need to socially distance, wear masks, and wash our hands frequently to reduce the risk of contracting COVID, and it’s the exact same model as driving.
“Even when those COVID protocols and rules were in place, though, we didn’t really find that they were being adhered to, and people had a lot of COVID fatigue, and it has been politicized also and I think there are a lot of people who really act like COVID isn’t real or isn’t a significant threat or isn’t as big of a deal as people are making it out to be and the vaccinations are also not necessarily trusted a lot of the time, so there is a lot of misinformation out there and we have definitely seen that affects people’s decisions.
“I have no interest in the politics of it, and I go straight to the science and I read the scientific studies and watch the scientific debates. I have my doctorate degree in Research Methods and Social Sciences and Statistics, and I spent six years learning how to assess scientific designs and what are the best statistics to use, so I studied how to select and interpret data. It’s been interesting and difficult to figure out how to combat all this misinformation.
“The scientific process is constantly changing and that’s OK. It’s because of new information. Long ago, scientists thought the earth was flat and the sun revolved around the earth, and then the scientists kept studying and realized that was wrong. Similarly, at the beginning of the pandemic, we didn’t think people should be wearing masks because at the time the science indicated it wouldn’t be helpful to wear masks to prevent COVID. Pretty quickly, we realized that’s not true because although the COVID particles could get through a mask, they don’t travel by themselves; they travel in droplets, saliva and mucous and those things can be contained very effectively by a mask.
“Then we got more data that when people consistently wore masks in schools, those counties had half the rate of transmission than the counties that didn’t have mask mandates in schools.
“The preponderance of evidence shows there is a scientific mechanism for masks to work and in the real world, they work. We have learned more and we know more and sometimes that changes things, and that’s just the scientific method working in real time.
“Some people are against taking the vaccine. When you have a belief, evidence doesn’t affect that one way or the other. I am happy to answer questions from people but when they have a belief, stake in the ground, no one can convince me otherwise, then there’s not really anything to talk about.
“We don’t like to see people get sick and regret not getting the vaccine. We don’t want anyone else to succumb to this terrible disease, but at the end of the day people have to make their own choices.
“Vaccination continues to be the best way to prevent disease. We find that unvaccinated people are 5.7 times more likely to get COVID than people who are vaccinated.
“In Merced County, the school health professionals have to be vaccinated or have an exemption, and the teachers have to be vaccinated or be tested for COVID every week.
“There won’t be a mandate for vaccinations for kids until it is fully approved by the FDA, and once that happens, it will be mandated for students and that’s at the earliest, by next Fall at the next semester.”
Vaccine for kids
How much of the population in Merced County is ages 5 through 11?
Dr. Sullivan said, “It’s about the same as for ages 12 through 15, which is between 5 percent and 10 percent of the population. We’ve seen lower rates in the 12 through 17 age group than in the adults — 38 percent of our 12 through 17-year-olds are fully vaccinated.”
Describing the steps for approval of the Pfizer vaccine for ages 5 through 11, Dr. Sullivan told the Times, “Pfizer had to apply to the FDA for Emergency Use authorization for the vaccine for ages 5 through 11. They turn over their data to FDA, and the FDA independently runs their data and verifies all the claims they are making.
“Then the CDC also does independent studies, and they look at the epidemiology of COVID in this age group, how it is affecting kids, risks of being vaccinated versus not being vaccinated, and other data, and all that is presented to the FDA advisory committee which is made up of top doctors, scientists and scholars from throughout the whole country. Then that committee assesses the data and recommends whether the benefits of the vaccine outweigh the risks and votes yes or no.
“The FDA advisory committee voted yes last week, that the benefits outweigh the risks for ages 5 through 11, and that vote went to the FDA and they almost always go along with their advisory committee.
So, the FDA approved it, and it went to the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (CACIP) — all vaccines go through this committee. They looked at the drug that has FDA approval and decided who it should be given to and how they should roll out the vaccine, and today [November 2], they voted it should be given on a widespread basis to all kids age 5 through 11.
“Now that vote goes to the Director of the CDC who signs off on it, and the Director will typically go along with the committee. California, Oregon, Washington and Nevada have created their own Western States Scientific Review Board, and they do an independent scientific evaluation and when they approve it, it will be able to be administered in California.
“They will probably do that on the evening of Nov. 2 or early on Nov. 3.
“So, it will be available, and a lot of providers have vaccine in hand and are just waiting. We could be seen some vaccinations of ages 5 through 11 happening as soon as Nov. 3.
“Personally, I plan on getting my 6-year-old vaccinated this week at an appointment with her pediatrician. I truly believe the scientific evidence indicates the best way to protect her as well as my elderly family members who are around is to get her vaccinated as soon as she is eligible.
“It’s another tool in the tool kit, and research is showing the vaccines are effective especially with widespread use and it’s very clear at this point.
“The biggest risk for kids when it comes to COVID is the loss of a parent, or other family member or caregiver so the best thing we can do is get vaccinated ourselves, and now with the vaccine for ages 5 through 11, we have another layer of protection.
“Myocarditis, inflamation of the heart, is linked to especially the second dose of the vaccine in mainly adolescent boys. So it’s very, very important that if a child is in that age group, you’re getting him vaccinated at your provider’s office and you do due diligence to monitor that. Myocarditis doesn’t happen very often, and actually COVID can create the same thing.”