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As Roanoke-area COVID-19 cases rise, official points to need for patience, precautions

As Roanoke-area COVID-19 cases rise, official points to need for patience, precautions

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Some 64 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in the Roanoke City and Alleghany Heath Districts on Wednesday, according to director Dr. Cynthia Morrow.

That single-day total accounts for more than a quarter of the 230 infections logged in the region during the past seven days, and Morrow said in her weekly update that the figure represents an ongoing rise in local totals. The districts had been averaging about 75 new cases per week over the previous two months.

Morrow’s announcement came one day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended universal masking in K-12 schools, and for fully vaccinated people to wear masks in indoor public spaces in areas with substantial to high rates of transmission. That’s defined by the CDC as having between 50 and more than 100 infections per 100,000 people; it’s a bar that most Virginia localities currently meet.

“I think all of us are waiting to hear how Virginia is going to interpret the most recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control,” Morrow said, calling it “an ongoing discussion.”

“In my conversations with the superintendents, I know that they are all truly invested in doing what’s best for their communities,” she said.

The CDC’s guidance came Tuesday, the day after the Franklin County School Board voted 6-1 that parents should decide for themselves whether their children wear masks at school and on buses during the upcoming academic year. Botetourt and Roanoke counties said Tuesday they will require students to wear mask on buses, but not indoors. Other localities are set to take up the issue next week.

Just before Virginia’s infections began to trend upward in mid-July, the CDC had said that the vaccinated could forgo masks in K-12 schools, even as pre-teens remain ineligible for shots. But last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics defied that guidance and called for masking regardless of vaccination status, noting the delta variant’s threat to kids.

Meanwhile the state’s health and education departments pivoted last week as well, urging students and staff in elementary schools to mask up. But they stopped short of the pediatric group’s suggestions with middle and high schoolers, pushing those levels to consider the option if the prospect of the spread severely worsened.

In her update, Morrow addressed some of that conflicting advice and the recent reversals.

“I would hope that everyone understands that we should change guidance based on changes in the information that’s available to us,” she said Wednesday. “All of our decisions should be based on the most current science, on the most current information. And we need people to be patient as we navigate these ever-changing waters.

“It’s a really, really challenging virus,” Morrow said.

With regard to rising case counts in the area, she said the majority of new infections — currently 97% — are in people who have not received the vaccine.

“This has become a pandemic of people who are not vaccinated,” she said.

That figure had been nearly 100% but dropped over the past week due to eight new instances of breakthrough disease, in which people who were vaccinated still became infected. The Roanoke City and Alleghany Heath Districts currently report 24,794 total cases of COVID-19; 216 of those are considered breakthroughs.

Breakthroughs occur because no vaccine is completely effective, but vaccinated people are far less likely to require hospitalization.

Even so, that phenomenon suggests a need for continued precautions: Morrow said vaccinated individuals who do get COVID-19 are more likely to be asymptomatic or have very mild symptoms, yet they can still spread the disease.

“I personally have started wearing my mask again because ... even though I am fully vaccinated, in the off-chance that I were to get COVID, and that chance is much lower ... I’m doing everything I can to protect the people around me,” she said.

She urged those who remain undecided about getting vaccinated to talk to doctors, to contact the Virginia Department of Health for more information, and to ask people they trust who have received the vaccine about their experiences.

“If you have been on the fence, it’s time to get off the fence and get vaccinated,” she said.

Also Wednesday, Morrow said that of the 230 cases identified in her districts in the past week, about 20% are associated with people who have traveled, and small outbreaks have been linked to summer camps. About 11% of the cases are in people under age 24.

On Wednesday, Virginia reported more than 1,000 new cases for the first time since April.

State data shows the percentage of people testing positive has more than tripled from 1.3% to 4.7% in the past month, even as the number of Virginians being tested hasn’t seen a significant bump.

Vaccinations have plateaued statewide to less than 12,000 per day. As of Tuesday, 46% of Virginians were not fully vaccinated. Most localities have fewer than 45% of their population inoculated. Those with higher rates are concentrated in Central and Northern Virginia.

In the Roanoke region, Roanoke County continues to show the highest vaccination rate, at 68.5%, with Craig County showing the lowest, with 45.1%.

According to Morrow, her health districts saw 2,500 vaccines administered within the past week, which she deemed “an uptick.”

The Richmond Times-Dispatch contributed information to this report.

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