By Richard Sullins |

Lee County Commissioners unanimously passed a resolution on October 18 to recognize the incredible work done by the county’s health department since the COVID outbreak began in March 2020.

County Health Director Heath Cain and the 34 members of the department’s staff were applauded by commissioners not only for their “immediate and ongoing response to the pandemic,” but also for “continuously adapting to the evolving resources that have been made available to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”

It was a moment to celebrate a triumph of the human spirit among those who had given unselfishly of themselves so that others might live healthy lives. The commissioners were not ready to declare victory in the battle against the virus here, but it was an important recognition of those whose tireless efforts have helped keep the pandemic from spreading uncontrolled through the populace. And largely because of their work, things are getting better.

The numbers are real. COVID is once again on the decline in Lee County after a summer surge. But the question that remains to be answered is whether the drop in numbers this time are marks the beginning of the end of the pandemic or just a lull before another wave hits as cooler temperatures force people back indoors for the winter months.

As schools began to dismiss for the summer, the numbers of COVID cases nationwide stood at their lowest levels since the pandemic began. In Lee County, the percentage of tests that were returned as positive had dropped to a low three percent in early June and public places across the county were dropping requirements that patrons wear masks.

But just three months later, as summer turned to fall, the virus had returned in the form of a variant of the original known as Delta. Many times more communicable than the original, the number of tests coming back from labs with a positive result reached more than 13 percent by mid-September and was still at 11 percent two weeks later as the month came to an end.

Now, as November ushers in the start of the holiday season, the percentage of positive COVID tests in Lee County has been cut in half over the past month, falling to 5.31 percent as October came to an end. Still, the county’s positivity rate remains higher than the state average of 4.4 percent and has typically lingered above five percent since March 2020.

Vaccines that have been proven to protect against the virus were developed at record speed during the Trump presidency and have been widely distributed by the Biden administration. Vaccination rates in Lee County, which lagged the state average since they first became available in December 2020, began to accelerate in September 2021 as both infections and deaths increased. Cain told The Rant in September that “we are seeing an uptick in first doses at our Thursday and Friday afternoon clinics.”

The number of persons who have received at least one does of the vaccine by October 28 was 36,768, or 70.5 percent of those persons ages 12 and over, an increase of 5,526 persons since the end of August. The number who have been fully vaccinated as of that same date was 30,496 or 58.5 percent of the same age group, an increase since August of 2,710 persons.

There is a growing disparity, though, in the percentage of persons that are fully vaccinated versus having just one dose of the vaccine. The percentage having received at least one dose by the end of September was 65.4, versus 55.1 percent that had been fully vaccinated, a difference of 10.3 percent. By the end of October, that difference had grown to 12 percent and the greatest increase had come among those that had received only one shot. November’s numbers will tell whether greater numbers of Lee County residents are opting only for one shot.

Approval by the Center for Disease Control of booster shots has led to heightened interest in the vaccines, according to Cain, but the department is prepared.

“We now have the resources to provide all CDC approved booster vaccines to many in our community,” he said. “This will now allow us to continue working to improve the health of our community and mitigate this virus.”

The CDC continues to list Lee as being among the 83 counties in the state having a high degree of community spread. By October’s end, the number of persons having tested positive for the virus within the county has reached 9,404 people since March 2020.

To gain a perspective of how the virus is spreading within one county as compared to another, statisticians normalize the number of cases as reported per 100,000 residents. Lee County reported 924 cases per 100,000 residents in September, a rate that was four times higher than October’s rate of only 227 cases per 100,000.

Even so, the number of persons dying from COVID-19 has continued to rise. At the end of July, 84 persons had died from the pandemic within the county. Five more died in August, eight in September, and 11 more in October, meaning that nearly one-quarter (22 percent) of the county’s COVID deaths since March 2020 have happened in just the last three months.

Almost two in every five persons (39 percent) testing positive for the virus in the county during October were between the ages of 25 to 49, by far the most predominant age grouping for the disease not just across the county, but throughout the nation as well.

Nationwide, the number of new COVID cases reported daily has dropped 57 percent since peaking on September 1 and the incidence of new infections has decreased in every region of the country. There are still some hot spots being reported in states along the Canadian border and this has led some experts to express concerns that the entire country could begin to see increases as activities begin to move indoors as cold weather arrives.

The Lee County Health Department is continuing to offer COVID-19 vaccinations, as well as the booster shots, for those who received the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines and who are 65 or older, or at least 18 and who live in long-term care settings, have underlying medical conditions, or who work or live in high-risk settings. Booster shots are also recommended for persons 18 and older and who received the Johnson and Johnson vaccine two or more months ago.

Booster shots are being offered by the Health Department at its drive-through clinic at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center at 1801 Nash Street in Sanford on Tuesdays, November 2, November 9, and November 16, from 9 am until 12 noon by appointment only. Residents may schedule their appointment by calling the Health Department at (919) 842-5744 (English) or (919) 718-4640, option 8 (Spanish). Persons using the clinic must bring their COVID vaccination card and proof of identification.