Since June 15 — when pretty much everything that had been closed due to COVID-19 was open with no capacity limits and no social distancing — suspense has been building about what comes next.
Will there be a new surge in COVID cases?
“We have seen a slight uptick, but it is a slower uptick than last summer,” Dr. Kristynn Sullivan told the Times this week. “Last summer’s surge really started in mid-June, and we went pretty rapidly to 10 cases a day and then to 100 cases a day in mid-July; within that month there was a pretty rapid increase.”
She added, “What we’re seeing now is an increase, but it’s much more gradual.
Dr. Sullivan is Merced County’s supervising epidemiologist who has been giving the Times updates on the pandemic and the spread of the virus locally for the past year.
She continued, “In mid-June [when the COVID restrictions were loosened], we had less than 10 cases a day. In the whole month of June, we had only a handful of days where we had 10 cases, and one day where we had 14, which was the highest. In July, all but one day has been higher than 10 cases, and the highest day was 22 cases. But it’s not nearly the pace it was in our last summer’s uptick.
“Daily cases per 100,000 residents was 1.5 in mid-June, and we’re now at 2.9, a slight increase.
“Positivity rate was 1.3 in mid-June, and is now 2.4 — a little increase but nothing nearly as much as we had last year.
“We’re doing better than the state as to case rate and positivity rate.
“We’ve had a lot of disease in the valley so there could be some protection from natural immunity.
“We are definitely watching the slight uptick because we have such a low vaccination rate, and because in some areas of the State, they are seeing more increases. In Southern California and in the Sacramento area, there have been some faster increases and because of that, we’re watching all of it and we’re wary about it but we’re not sounding the alarm bells yet.
According to Dr. Sullivan, “Outbreaks are way down in the county; we only have one right now and it’s for a Skilled Nursing Facility and that’s because one case counts to qualify for an outbreak instead of the usual three.
“The clusters we’re seeing right now are typically within households.
“Schools aren’t in session except for summer session and right now, they have been without outbreaks, but summer school is a smaller school environment so we’ll really know more about school outbreaks when school resumes in August.
“Schools will go back to full-time in-person learning for the 2021-22 school year.
Surge in the fall?
“We could see another surge in the fall, and that is because school will be fully back in session in-person so there will be a lot more big-group mixing, but mainly it’s because it’s the normal respiratory season. Those respiratory viruses like the cold and affect people who are indoors with a lack of ventilation.
“The Delta Variant is causing increases in hospitalizations.
“But the vaccine is very effective in preventing hospitalizations and deaths from any variant of COVID, including Delta.
“The age of those hospitalized and those who have become COVID fatalities is trending downward because the people who are not vaccinated tend to be younger. “COVID is typically not as bad for the younger people, but with the Delta Variant, we are seeing younger people hospitalized. We recently had a fatality of a person in their forties. We don’t have a lot of hospitalizations or deaths right now, and we’re following the national trend where deaths and hospitalizations are starting to trend downward in age.
Kids under 12
“They are still doing studies and looking at different dosages for those under 12, and hopefully the studies will conclude in early Fall. The results have to be compiled and submitted to the FDA and the FDA has to review them, so there is no time table on when doses will be distributed for those under age 12 until the results of the studies are finalized.
Said Dr. Sullivan: “The Merced County Public Health Department is encouraging unvaccinated people to get the vaccine. We are encouraging people to go to ongoing clinics or their pharmacies to be vaccinated. For clinics, people can follow the Health Department on Facebook and Instagram at @mercedcountypublichealth.
“The vaccine effectiveness is looked at a couple ways. Does it prevent you from getting the virus? 95 percent of the people that get the vaccine do not get the disease; 5 percent who are fully vaccinated are still going to get COVID.
“Of those who get COVID, do they have severe disease or die? By and large, no. Way less than 1% of people who have been vaccinated have subsequently died. It has saved lots of lives and continues to be our best bet.
“We are concerned about the fact that our vaccination rate remains pretty low.
“Including all Merced County residents, our vaccination rate is 30.2 percent, but not everybody can be vaccinated, so for the eligible population it’s a little bit higher than that — 37 percent are fully vaccinated and 49 percent have had at least one dose of the vaccine.
“The State vaccination rates are 60.6 percent fully vaccinated and 69.9 percent have had at least one dose. For the eligible population, the state is at 61 percent fully vaccinated, as opposed to Merced County at 37 percent.
“Our vaccination rates are particularly low in the younger age group. Only 30 percent of our 18 to 44-year-olds are fully vaccinated, and that’s about half of our eligible population. What we’re hearing is they don’t think COVID is that big of a deal for them or will really affect them so they don’t think it’s worth it to get the vaccine. “As to our older people, 65 percent of our age 65 to 74 group is fully vaccinated, and 63 percent of our 75+ are fully vaccinated.
“We haven’t seen any severe side effects from the vaccines; some people feel unwell for 24 or 48 hours or have soreness at the site of the injection, but we don’t know of any severe reactions.
“Very, very rarely, the vaccine can cause an inflammation of the heart tissue, but COVID can also cause the same condition. The side effects from COVID, including this rare heart condition, are typically more severe, but the documented cases of mild heart inflammation that have been investigated to date have been able to be treated easily. The risks of the vaccine are significantly less than the risks of having COVID.”