Merced County Times Newspaper
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COVID-19 drops to ‘low category,’ but masks still play role

The COVID-19 pandemic has been with us for three years. Lately some of the prevention protocols have been relaxed by the state and there are more remedies to keep people from getting seriously ill, the county’s health officer says.

Dr. Salvador Sandoval notes in general Merced County residents are less likely to be hospitalized and die from COVID-19. That’s because a fair number of people have been vaccinated or received boosters or they had the disease and have since built up natural immunity.

COVID-19 also has been downgraded from pandemic to endemic status, like long-standing polio, measles and influenza diseases which have  been around for many years and still require annual vaccinations.

Sandoval said in general those who were vaccinated against COVID-19 are less likely to get hospitalized or die. If they have had the updated booster shots, that provides even better protection.

Since COVID-19 began in 2020, 909 deaths have been attributed to COVID-19 in Merced County and 90,033 local cases have been reported.

Pfizer’s Paxlovid medication also is proving valuable and will help prevent “long covid” instances.

“I’d like to think everything is back to normal but we are not quite there yet. At this point it is a low category and we still have options for treatment in different situations,” he says.

While years ago health officials had to weigh the risk vs. benefit, he said it is still strongly recommended people use masks, especially in crowded places like supermarkets and churches. The 10-day isolation requirement for COVID-19 sufferers has been lowered to five days.

On Feb. 28 California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered lessening of vaccination requirements and some safety protocols, including hospitals and nursing homes. A high percentage of staff members have been vaccinated and that offers protection to the residents, Sandoval says.

He said the issue has become highly nuanced. Merced and the San Joaquin Valley got COVID-19 later than other parts of the state and were considered lower risk. Then incidences of COVID-19 increased in the San Joaquin Valley.

While COVID-19 test results aren’t as reliable as they should be, a new tool to monitor infection has been identified. Wastewater monitoring can pinpoint infection rates for certain areas. The latest wastewater tests showed a 33 percent increase in infections in the Los Banos area where a number of people commute to jobs in the Bay Area.

“It’s starting to level down and probably will be in a lower category. Masks still play an important role, especially early on, along with Paxlovid,” Sandoval says.

Changes accompanying the government order may see immunization costs not be covered. Up to two million people may have to reapply for Medi-Cal benefits. Sandoval is encouraging these people to get their booster shots before the May 11 deadline, especially children.

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