Local health experts urge vaccines as CDC ups mask recommendations

Local Coronavirus Coverage

TRI-CITIES (WJHL) – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed mask recommendations in certain areas of the country where COVID-19 cases are on the rise due to the new Delta variant Tuesday.

Sullivan County Regional Health Department Medical Director Dr. Stephen May told News Channel 11 with the COVID case rates continuing to rise, the Tri-Cities region definitely counts as one of those areas.

The CDC is backtracking some guidelines for fully vaccinated people, but May said it’s nothing to be alarmed by.

“Actually, that’s not a lot different than what’s been recommended before, that if you’re in mixed groups of vaccinated and unvaccinated that you should continue to wear masks. So, I think they’re just more formally putting it out. We know that vaccinated are relatively protected, especially from hospitalization and death. But we do see breakthrough cases, and that means this vaccinated person if they have a low-grade infection can transmit it to other people. So, I think that’s where a lot of these recommendations are coming from, but they’re not a lot different than what we’ve been operating under up until this point in time,” May said.

As case rates climb, vaccinations are becoming more important to healthcare professionals.

“Currently, about 40 percent of our population is vaccinated, which means 60 percent of our population is essentially vulnerable, and we want to reduce those numbers as much as possible. My message to the community is multi-millions of these doses have been given out very safely. It’s proven that they’re very effective at preventing hospitalization and death,” May said.

He added that the new Delta variant is more transmissible than the other strains of COVID-19, and more precautions should be taken.

“Essentially 98 percent of all of our new cases, and of those going into the hospital, are in the unvaccinated group, and the sooner that we get to a much higher level of vaccination, the sooner I think we can start to relax,” May said. “We’re right now in the middle of a perfect storm. We’ve got a new Delta variant that’s moving through that’s much more infectious than the other two previous strains, and we got a lot of social activity going on without any type of safety measures and precautions and we have schools starting back, many of the schools in the first of August. So between the social events, the schools, the Delta variant – we are in a perfect position with low vaccination rates to see a resurgence of the disease, and possibly increase in hospitalizations, and unfortunately, we don’t want any more deaths from this illness.”

He said the CDC recommendations should be followed, even if you are fully vaccinated, you should still wear a mask in crowded indoor areas.

“First, I would commend them on being vaccinated, that is the most effective protection that you can have, but the concern is breakthrough cases. The Delta variant, being much more infectious and much more easily transmitted means that we can have even vaccinated people with a low-grade infection. They’re not going to get sick or die with it, but they may become infected in those environments as a breakthrough case, and infect those who are unvaccinated then, as they carry it on to another site,” May said.

Ballad Health Center for Post-COVID Care Director Dr. Paul Jett told News Channel 11 that he doesn’t want to see patients unnecessarily admitted to his clinic when wearing a mask could prevent that.

“I think the last thing anybody wants to do is to end up in the diagnosis of COVID or in the center for post-COVID care as a result, and we’re finding about 10% of people that that contract COVID are ended up in our clinic or are eligible for our clinic with these long term symptoms. So I know that the mask fatigue is real and people are tired of doing that but this delta variant coming our way and it’s very real, and it’s very strong it’s affecting young healthy people,” Jett said.

He said people currently being hospitalized are mostly unvaccinated.

“Primarily, I think we’re finding most of the people that are hospitalized with the Delta variant are unvaccinated. However, it does stand to reason that the extra precaution of wearing the mask is one added layer of precaution and I would support the CDC recommendations, if and when those are spelled out.”

He said people should be much more cautious now that the uber-infectious delta variant has reached the Tri-Cities.

“I do see and read that the symptoms vary, whereas we were looking significantly for the taste and the smell loss, along with the fever with the initial phase of the virus,” Jett said. “Now we’re seeing the symptoms to be much more variable, affecting oftentimes the gastrointestinal tract and some other symptoms that may not always be what we had thought with the initial virus so my suggestion is that if you’re feeling sick at this time, have a very low threshold for visiting your healthcare provider if you’re not feeling well, just because it would be important to know whether or not you do have the virus so that you could quarantine appropriately and monitor yourself for symptoms and so forth.”

Jett said now is not the time for sick people to stay away from healthcare providers, but instead for them to mask up and get tested for COVID-19, even if they are fully vaccinated.

“We can’t take for granted that we have a simple cold or a sinus infection anymore with these viruses kind of swirling around in our area, and I think that would be important to incorporate the provider in the discussion. If things are not going normally for you, and if you feel that there’s any possibility that you’ve been exposed to the virus to make sure that you’re doing your part by being checked out,” Jett said.

With rising vaccination rates, Jett said he is hopeful.

“I know that there’s an increase, recently with the vaccination rates and I think that’s a good thing. With the Delta variant coming out, I would encourage anyone that’s not been vaccinated to please go get vaccinated. If you have questions, contact your healthcare provider and be happy to feel those questions as they come in,” Jett said.

Johnson City resident Travis Acree was diagnosed with COVID-19 in July 2020. He said the new CDC mask recommendations are necessary.

“I think it is a good thing that the CDC is making this recommendation, even for the people that are vaxxed to continue to wear masks inside,” Acree said. “Although, I think it is coming out a little bit too late. Bars are open, places are open, businesses are open, and they’re packed, and people are going. It’s summertime, and people are wanting to get back to their lives as they were pre-COVID. But the sad reality is we probably shouldn’t be at is this thing is still around, COVID is still around, and different variants are coming out, and it’s impacting a lot of people in the community.”

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