Local COVID cases dip after last month's surge

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

LRH encourages vaccination, stops short of staff mandate

Active cases of COVID-19 in Dickinson County more than doubled between Sept. 10 and Oct. 8, according to local health officials. The figure rose from 61 cases to 143 in 24 days, according to the data. The county has also reported an additional five deaths related to the respiratory virus occurred in that same window — bringing the county's total number of fatal cases to 51 since the pandemic began last year. Friday's report showed some decline in active cases, dropping to 124. Dickinson County Public Health said last week's crest in local numbers was the highest since April 2, when the total reached 161.

"Although we do not have a definitive, comprehensive reason for the major uptick in cases, there are several potential contributing factors, including more indoor activities, which could partially impact the increase in cases compared to May through August," Dickinson County Public Health Director Katy Burke said. "We also know that the Delta variant is the dominant strain, and it is more contagious."

She went on to note those with weaker immune systems may benefit from a third booster dose of COVID-19 vaccine. She said her office has been glad to see an increase in COVID-19 testing, both through clinical appointments and self-administered test kits, and she said increased testing has also helped the county be more aware of active local cases. She said individuals are continuing to schedule appointments for their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine each week.

"While we have over half of Dickinson County vaccinated, and approximately 60 percent of the eligible population, we would certainly like to see that percentage continue to rise," Burke said.

The Oct. 15 numbers show a little more than 60 percent of individuals 12 and older in Dickinson County have been vaccinated, but the senior population continues to lead the county with 85 percent of county residents age 65 and older having been vaccinated at this point.

Local health officials recently began tracking the number of patients with COVID-19 who were hospitalized in Dickinson County. Between Sept. 1 and Oct. 4, 25 patients who tested positive for the virus were admitted to the hospital. Staff said 24 of them were admitted because of COVID-19 symptoms — the remaining positive case was in labor. And the hospital reported a nearly even split among the 25 when it came to being vaccinated — 13 were not vaccinated against the virus while 12 were. Burke noted that no vaccine is 100-percent effective at preventing an illness, but she said evidence shows vaccination lessens the severity of the disease if contracted, as well as the risk of hospitalization and death.

Burke also noted the age gap between the two groups — the average age of the 12 vaccinated individuals was 80 while the average age of the unvaccinated group was 59. Burke said breakthrough cases are more likely among the elderly and immunocompromised. She later confirmed all five of the county's recent COVD-related deaths were over age 65 — two of them were over age 80.

"This demonstrates the importance of booster shots for older adults and those who are immunocompromised," Burke said. "They may not have the same level of immunity as someone younger or not immunocompromised, which can impact breakthrough infections, contributing to the older vaccinated group being hospitalized."

Lakes Regional Healthcare CEO Jason Harrington said the hospital has seen an increase among its inpatient population over the past year.

"In the first three months of our fiscal year, which began on July 1, our inpatient volume has been 43 percent higher than the same timeframe a year before," Harrington said. "We rarely had any COVID-positive inpatients in July and August, so the increase has not been completely attributable to COVID-19. Part of our increased census includes patients that are eligible to return to the nursing home, but nursing homes are not accepting them due to staffing."

Harrington said he feels the hospital staff has been working hard to aid the community, and he noted their work has been particularly difficult amid staffing shortages — prompting the hospital to periodically close inpatient admissions and elective surgeries. Harrington went on to say the hospital is not currently requiring its employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, but he said a majority of hospital staff are already vaccinated or have natural immunity from previously contracting the virus. He also noted all staff members are required to wear appropriate protective equipment, and patients are still required to wear face masks inside the hospital.

'We believe it is in the community’s and the organization’s best interests to not mandate the COVID-19 vaccine at this time, because it would likely lead to a further reduction in our workforce and our ability to care for patients," Harrington said. "It is our responsibility to take care of every person that shows up at our door, and having less staff would limit our ability to do that."

Harrington said Lakes Regional is waiting on federal guidance on mandating vaccination among staff, but it respects the decisions of hospitals which have put such mandates in place and LRH encourages the community to receive the vaccine, as well as those for other preventable diseases.

"We realize there is not a decision that will make everyone happy regarding a mandate of the COVID-19 vaccine on hospital staff," Harrington said. "Unfortunately, getting the vaccine or not has become highly politicized and has polarized people. It would be wonderful if the decision to mandate the vaccine would be met positively by all people and we could continue to care for any number of patients that arrive at our door."

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