By Richard Sullins
Masks are coming off and restaurant tables are back in place. Churches have reopened and handshakes have returned. For the first time in a year, we can see people smile, and we hear them greet one another with the words, “I’ve had my shots!”
But perception is not always reality.
While it may seem that we have moved past the COVID pandemic, it’s still at work in the background and this time.
After the pandemic hit its peak in early January and shots started going into arms, the number of COVID cases dropped sharply across the country. The number of persons testing positive for the virus has dropped in North Carolina to 1.9 percent as of the latest data release on June 25.
But in Lee County, the percentage of positive tests is almost three times higher than the state average — 5.2 percent — and despite the county’s best efforts, it has stubbornly remained above 5 percent almost since the pandemic began.
Until the last week of June, Lee was one of six counties in the state that were still experiencing “substantial community spread” of the virus, meaning that there have been at least 21 cases in the last 14 days for every 100,000 residents and that there remains at least a moderate impact on county hospitals. The NC DHHS’s COVID-19 dashboard shows that Lee County has reported 34 cases per 100,000 residents and the impact on the local hospital remains moderate.
The database further indicates that 25,307 Lee County residents have had at least one dose of the vaccine as of June 25. Digging further into the dashboard’s data shows that the highest vaccination rates in the county are in some of the western townships (as high as 54.2 percent), while the lowest percentages of persons having received the vaccine (29.7 percent) are located along either side of the US 421 by-pass corridor on the east side of Sanford.
The data doesn’t give a clear answer why this circumstance exists, and local leaders are left guessing as well. Some believe that at least some of the hotspot activity came from manufacturing, where people worked closely together and then went home with lots of people living in the same home.
Whatever the reason, Sanford Mayor Chet Mann said communication is the first step forward.
“Unfortunately, getting our message out today is a real challenge,” he said. “Social media is about the only way that people in those areas are able to get the message and if they are not following the channels of the city’s website, the county’s website, and if they are not on the Sanford Area Growth Alliance site, where will they get their information?”
It was precisely that lack of information among some populations that was the impetus behind the City’s mask mandate imposed in 2020. The idea was that those persons who went into businesses would all get the message about the importance of mask wearing, social distancing, and good hygiene if they wanted to enter those establishments to conduct business. Mann said that the City didn’t write a single ticket for mask violations, but they did do more than 700 educational visits to stress the importance of taking steps that would help control the outbreak.
The data also shows that persons aged 65 and older have the highest rates of being vaccinated, with the lowest being those ages 30 and under. Vaccination rates are particularly lower in areas with high minority concentrations within the population. As soon as the vaccine became available in late December of 2020, sites were overrun by people wanting to get vaccinated. But as the percentage approached the 40 percent number, lines and waiting times have disappeared, leaving county health departments with large stocks of the vaccine and few showing up to get it.
This phenomenon is not unique to Lee County. It’s being seen across the country, leaving health officials to speculate why more people won’t take action to protect themselves and their loved ones. For some, it’s a choice governed by personal health concerns. For others, it’s belief in a conspiracy theory that the virus doesn’t exist, and that the vaccination program is another example of government overreach. And there are some who want to wait and see if there are unforeseen and potentially deadly any side effects from the shots that haven’t shown up yet.
But whether you believe that the pandemic is real or not, the statistics are set in stone. 6,151 cases have been reported in Lee County since the outbreak began 15 months ago. The virus has claimed 83 lives here since March of 2020. And the county’s percentage of COVID tests that are positive remains among the highest in the state.
Officials across the county who spoke to The Rant agreed that educating people from all walks of life about the efficacy of the vaccine and the importance of taking steps to protect yourself and others from COVID is similar to how you protect yourself against other illnesses, like colds or the flu, and staying informed about what is happening in the community.
Lee County Schools Superintendent Dr. Andy Bryan says the key to a successful reopening of schools was in keeping people informed through transparency.
“As we opened back up for in-person learning in our schools, we kept a dashboard on our website to show students and staff numbers that had been tested positive, quarantined, and so forth, and we also had to keep that information for our partnership with Duke University’s ABC Collaborative, so we were retaining all that information as we went through the course of the pandemic,” he said.
School Nurse Supervisor Mary Hawley Oates said that quarantining was key to controlling the outbreak.
“Total staff quarantine for that period was 697 with 127 staff testing positive,” she said. “The total number of students was 1,873 quarantined with 133 who tested positive. In summer school, there have been quarantined 10 to 15, with 2 or 3 who have tested positive. And who they had exposure to.”
No Lee County students died as a result of the pandemic, but the district did lose one staff member.
Vaccinations played a critical role in the reopening of Lee County Schools during the year just ended. Oates said that exact data is not available because staff are not required to report their vaccination status, but about 65 percent of last year’s teachers and staff have received the vaccination.
“Now, we will have new staff coming in next year and we don’t know their vaccine status,” she said. “We don’t know how that will change the landscape of our schools. Mind you, some sites had as few as 15 percent of their staff vaccinated, whereas other sites had 74 percent of their staff vaccinated. So, it varied. It wasn’t 65 percent of every school. That’s the cumulative number.”
Oates says that despite all the work that has been done, it’s the unknowns that can throw all the county’s progress off the track. She believes that a surge in known COVID cases late in the 2020-21 school year might have been caused by a variant of the virus.
“In the last month of school, we saw a real increase in the number of students who were testing positive,” she said. “We probably had 35 to 40 cases during the last month who tested positive. And that’s what we were seeing in the community.”
Last October, 11.7 percent of the total COVID cases seen in Lee County were from school-aged children ages 17 and under. That number has never gone down. It continues to rise and today stands at 12.9 percent, meaning that children in school are the most vulnerable in the county because only a small percentage have had the vaccine. That’s elementary and middle school children, since students as young as 12 years old are now eligible to get vaccinated. Oates believes that it may be January 2022 before the youngest children are declared eligible by the CDC.
County Health Director Heath Cain says his department is continuing to provide multiple vaccination options for individuals who want to get them. These include every Thursday and Friday from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Government Center, by calling (919) 842 5744 to register for an appointment, and from drive-thru clinics that will be available until July 20.
Cain said that the Health Department is also providing through DHHS a COVID-19 Vaccine Incentive in the form of a $25 card for all persons ages 18 and older who want to receive their first COVID vaccine. More information about this incentive can be found at http://covid19.ncdhhs.gov/vaccines/covid-19-vaccine-incentives. Other organizations, such as the United Way, are promoting and providing opportunities for vaccinations to increase the number of people vaccinated and help prevent the further spread of the virus.
Mann applauded the tough door-to-door work done by the Health Department.
“While I’m disappointed by the overall COVID response, I think our Health Department has done a super job, especially in the last six months, of trying to make it easier for people who want it to get vaccinated. Right now, the Health Department has called every member of the Chamber of Commerce, 600 members, and asked them if they would like a nurse to come to their business and do a free coronavirus vaccination. That’s great.”
Officials are unanimous on this point: the vaccine works and there is no reason not to get it.
Oates observed that “vaccination is the only way we are getting out of this pandemic. I personally didn’t hesitate. I fought to get my first vaccine just as quickly as I could get it into my arm, and to get my whole family vaccinated as quickly as we could. I say as a scientist said on television recently, ‘I’ve been to funerals of people who died from COVID but I haven’t been to any who died from taking the vaccine. Because there aren’t any.’”
Richard Sullins covers local government for The Rant Monthly. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.