Buncombe health director hopes to avoid deadly COVID-19 winter amid vaccination efforts – Citizen Times

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Pfizer files for emergency use of COVID vaccine for kids 5-11

Pfizer files for emergency use of COVID vaccine for kids 5-11


As the country stares down a second pandemic winter, county health officials are cautiously optimistic that, armed with rising vaccination rates, this winter won’t be a repeat of the last, when Buncombe saw the high water mark for COVID-19 cases, hospitalization and deaths. 

Buncombe County Public Health Director Stacie Saunders, in a call with local media Oct. 6, called declining local COVID-19 transmission “promising.”

“I am hopeful that we will continue to see those cases decrease, that percent positivity decrease and that we will come into the winter season and the winter holidays in a very different place,” she said. 

In early October 2020, cases were just starting on the precipitous rise through the fall and winter that would top out in early January 2021, when North Carolina saw the worst of the pandemic to date. 

This year, early October is marking a fall in cases from the month prior, as the delta variant drove a second peak in cases that topped out in early September. Those rates have since dropped, from about 8,600 new cases on Sept. 3, to about 3,600 cases Oct. 6 statewide.

But as colder temperatures, and the regular spike in respiratory illnesses that comes with them, loom on the horizon, Saunders says this year vaccines could keep the state from seeing another deadly winter. 

“This time last year it was really different,” she said. “A year ago we did not have vaccine at all available.”

As the community entered the holiday season last year, and even once vaccines initially became available, Saunders said, there was more demand than vaccine. 

“We had a large winter surge,” she said. “Today it’s very different. Today we have really good access and really good distribution of vaccine.”

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The latest data from the state Department of Health and Human Services shows Buncombe County with a 59% vaccination rate, and 62% who have received their first dose. 

But when only considering eligible residents, those 12 and older, the rate jumps to 67% and 71% respectively. Among county residents 18 and older, the rate is 69% and 72%, and for those 65 and older, it’s 81% and 82%. 

Looking at new cases by age shows the impact vaccination rates are having on transmission locally, as younger people begin to account for a larger share of new cases. 

“What we’ve noticed in this latest surge in the last month is that we have seen an increase in that proportion of new cases that are less than 18, so our 0-18 population,” Saunders said.

Since the start of the pandemic, school-age residents have made up about 12-14% of all new COVID-19  cases, Saunders said, but in the last month, the rate has been 20-25% at any given moment and 24.5% of new cases in the past month.

Some of that population, people younger than 12, aren’t yet eligible for vaccines, but approval is expected soon for ages 5-11, and Saunders said of those who are eligible, vaccination rates are rising.

“A part of our outreach at this point is to really try to get those folks who are not necessarily opposed to vaccination at this point, but who just haven’t gotten it yet,” Saunders said.

The highest vaccination rates, over 80% for Buncombe County residents, are in people 65 and older, she noted, who are representing a smaller share of new COVID-19 cases.

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In the last month, vaccination rates in 12-17-year-olds has risen 3%, Saunders said, “which is really great work on all parts of our Buncombe County vaccine providers, not just HHS.”

The most recent state data shows that for the week of Sept. 26, of 519 cases in Buncombe County, 136, or 26.2% were in residents 17 years old and younger. Residents 65 and older accounted for 66 cases, or 12.7%. 

Those numbers are the opposite of last winter, when Buncombe County logged its most weekly cases, 1,335 during the week of Dec. 27.

Of those, 101, or 7.6% were in people 17 and younger, and 303, or 22.7% were in residents 65 and older. 

One of the places county officials have seen success is in outreach events at schools, Saunders said, which has resulted in new vaccinations, even among people who aren’t in school.

Three of those outreach events in one week saw about 140 new vaccinations, she said.

“That has really been our driving force, is localize this more and go to familiar spaces where folks know the layout, they know the faces that they’re going to see and feel good about going,” Saunders said.

Rising vaccination rates also raise questions about herd immunity, the level of immunity either through vaccination or natural exposure that would cause the spread of the virus to decrease, billed as the de facto pandemic finish line and focus of earlier vaccination efforts.

“Herd immunity is going to have to be studied,” Saunders said. “Really and truly I think the driving-home sort of message is the more our population or our community is vaccinated and protected, the more likely we are to see those transmission rates decline.” 

And the more that rate declines, the better off the community will be, she said. And the higher the vaccination rate, the more likely new case rates will stay low. 

“COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, is likely something that we are going to live with,” Saunders said. “And it’s more about how do we put things in place, including our priority of vaccination in order to control and manage that transmission and that infection.”

Derek Lacey covers health care, growth and development for the Asheville Citizen Times. Reach him at DLacey@gannett.com or 828-417-4842 and find him on Twitter @DerekAVL.