COVID surges again in Chatham County as vaccine uptake slows, delta variant spreads

Nurse Practitioner Elissa Greene feels frustrated watching Chatham County's COVID numbers surge again while patients waive off vaccination.

On Tuesday, she saw a 54-year-old woman who was planning to travel to help care for an expected new grandchild. The primary care visit was not COVID related, but Greene always asks about vaccination status.

No. Not vaccinated. Not planning to get vaccinated, the patient told Greene, who participated in the Moderna vaccine trial locally and recently received a booster shot.

"If I just act judgmental, that's not going to help them, Green said. "So I try and see if they have any questions. I make sure they understand that it's free and readily available. I tell them where to go. I explain if they have any questions."

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The patient told Greene that "people she knew" had gotten vaccinated and gotten sick and gone to the hospital. But she couldn't tell Greene how they're doing now. Internally, Greene doubted the story. But outwardly she soldiered on.

"I talked about reactions, I talked about risk benefit, I talked about reactions to vaccination actually being a good thing, because you know, because it means you have an immune system," she said. "I talk about serious side effects being very rare. And then I talk about COVID. You know, and how it's a very, very contagious airborne virus that attaches to your brain and your heart and your lungs. You really don't want to get it."

A traveling nurse practitioner, Greene is working this summer in primary care in the Savannah area where she's seen school teachers, school principals, college students and nurses who are not vaccinated.

She estimates her patients are much like the county population, with about one-third to one-half of them unvaccinated. The Georgia Department of Public Health reports 41% of Chatham residents are fully vaccinated and 45% have had at least one shot. Statewide, those figures are 40% and 44%.

Younger people hospitalized

Over the last three weeks, Chatham County's transmission index has nearly tripled. That's the number of newly confirmed cases in the last 14 days per 100,000 residents. It went from 55 on July 6 to 158 on July 20.

Hospitalizations are climbing quickly, too, rising to exceed 40 COVID inpatients at the three area hospitals two days in a row after dipping to just four in June.  The numbers look similar to the beginning of each of the previous two surges.

What's different is the age of people being hospitalized. The average age is now 50 at Memorial Health, said Dr. Stephen Thacker,  a pediatric infectious disease physician and Memorial's associate chief medical officer.

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"For hospitalizations, what we're seeing is a shift to a younger age, because it is an age range where vaccine uptake has been less than what we would want, as opposed to the 65 and older where 75% or more in many areas pursued vaccination.

In Chatham, 100% of those aged 75-84 have been vaccinated, the Georgia Vaccine Dashboard indicates. Older Chatham residents flocked to vaccine clinics early on after being disproportionately affected by COVID. About 50% of Chatham's 441 deaths from COVID were in residents age 75 or older though they make up only about 10% of the population.

Delta variant

Also different is the virus itself. The more contagious delta variant is becoming the most prevalent one across the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Tuesday delta now makes up 83% of sequenced samples in the United States.

Thacker said delta is more efficient at infecting us and multiplying.

"And so a whole bunch more viruses are in your nose when you're infected with this variant. And so with that, comes an easier recipe for spread within communities at risk."

Variants pose a risk of eventually outwitting the vaccine if too few people are vaccinated.

"So each time this virus moves from one person to another, there's opportunity for mutation and creating a new version or new variant of the virus is more effective at infecting us or harming us," Thacker said. "And so the sooner we can get access to vaccine, not only just in the US, but in all the other nations of the world, the sooner we will not have to worry about variants of this nature."

Testing is down everywhere. But vaccinated people can get and spread COVID, though it's rare and they're likely to have a much milder case.

"And so, I would encourage anyone, whether they're vaccinated or not, they have symptoms fitting with COVID-19, that they pursue testing immediately, rather than waiting and saying, 'Oh, this must be allergies,' or 'Oh, this must be the common cold.' Because when you are sick and actively infected, whether you're vaccinated or not, you have the opportunity to spread this virus to others around you."

Mary Landers is the environment and health reporter at the Savannah Morning News. Contact her at 912-655-8295. Twitter: @MaryLandersSMN

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: COVID surges again in Chatham County as vaccine uptake slows, delta variant spreads