Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, local governments across the state have been working to keep their residents informed, get shots into arms, and educate on best practices to mitigate virus spread.
Director of the Chatham County Health Department Mike Zelek recently spoke with 97.9 The Hill about COVID trends, county vaccination rates, and looking ahead to the new year.
Roughly two years into the pandemic, the COVID-19 response locally and nationally continues to change as new variants emerge and cases spike .
Most recently, omicron has raced ahead of other variants and is now the dominant version of the coronavirus in the U.S. The newest “variant of concern,” as determined by the World Health Organization, now accounts for 73 percent of new infections according to federal health officials last week.
This new variant is causing another spike in cases in the state, the last of which was seen in late August by the delta variant; however, Zelek said this rise in cases isn’t unexpected.
“For us, we saw this last year in winter,” Zelek said. “As you get into the holiday season, as you get into the colder weather, cases tend to rise. That’s what we see with other respiratory viruses as well. So, I don’t think that’s a surprise.”
Zelek said what is surprising, however, is just how quickly the omicron variant is spreading as compared to other versions of the virus.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention numbers showed nearly a six-fold increase in omicron’s share of infections in only one week. Since the end of June, the delta variant had been the main version causing U.S. infections. As recently as the end of November, more than 99 percent of coronaviruses were delta.
“That’s a pretty rapid increase that reflects just how it infectious this virus is,” Zelek said. “Now that’s not a reason to panic. From where I sit as a practitioner, as a health director we want to tell people what they can do – and what you can do is get vaccinated, you can get boosted, and wear a mask in indoor public places.”
Per data from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services , 58 percent of the total population in North Carolina is fully vaccinated. In Chatham County 54 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. While that isn’t far off from the state average, it is significantly lower compared to a 74 percent vaccination rate in Orange County, 70 percent in Wake and 68 percent in Durham.
Despite lower-than-average numbers, Zelek said the county is still seeing a steady demand for COVID vaccinations, especially as more people became eligible for boosters and more kids get their shots.
“In terms of the five to 11 age group vaccinations, our most recently eligible group, Chatham is in the top six [counties] in the state,” Zelek said. “That is about 26 percent of five- to 11-year-olds that have rolled up their sleeve at least once for that first dose.”
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