COVID-19 case numbers are growing rapidly in Calaveras County, but vaccination rates are not.
On Monday, the county’s public health department announced three additional deaths linked to the coronavirus—a male in his late 40’s and two women in their 60’s—bringing the countywide death toll to 61.
The recent deaths correlate with the number of active confirmed cases, which have increased roughly five-fold since the beginning of August, as a Delta variant-fueled surge nears an infection rate not seen since last winter.
Vaccination rates, however, have not shown such significant growth. Calaveras County’s fully vaccinated population has increased by about 2% since mid-July, now at 41.2%, with roughly 10% having received just one dose, according to an L.A. Times vaccination tracker.
That puts the county in forty-third place out of 58 California counties and below the statewide rate of 55% of residents fully vaccinated.
County Health Officer René Ramirez, MD, has been fighting an uphill battle to change minds and change the tide since taking his position in April. At public meetings, his warnings to residents have been frustrated and fervent: the pandemic is not yet over.
“The vaccine against Covid is safe and effective and is our best chance at getting past this pandemic,” Ramirez told the Enterprise. “The vast majority of complications and deaths due to Covid are now being seen primarily against unvaccinated individuals. This means that the morbidity and mortality associated with Covid is now considered largely a preventable issue.”
While it is unknown exactly how many cases can be attributed to the more contagious Delta variant within Calaveras County, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has listed Delta as the predominant variant throughout the United States.
This is bad news for unvaccinated individuals, who are at a higher risk of serious illness if they contract the coronavirus, which vaccinated individuals can still transmit, according to the CDC.
“The COVID-19 vaccines authorized in the United States are highly effective at preventing severe disease and death, including against the Delta variant. But they are not 100% effective and some fully vaccinated people will become infected (called a breakthrough infection) and experience illness. For such people, the vaccine still provides them strong protection against serious illness and death,” the CDC states. “Although breakthrough infections happen much less often than infections in unvaccinated people, individuals infected with the Delta variant, including fully vaccinated people with symptomatic breakthrough infections, can transmit it to others. CDC is continuing to assess data on whether fully vaccinated people with asymptomatic breakthrough infections can transmit. However, the greatest risk of transmission is among unvaccinated people who are much more likely to contract, and therefore transmit the virus.”
Yet anxieties persist surrounding the available Covid vaccines, all of which have received Emergency Use Authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) but are awaiting full FDA approval.
However, Ramirez insists that the vaccines are safe, and that individuals should consider the greater risk of not getting the jab.
“This is not a matter of opinion,” he said. “It has been established that the Covid vaccine is safe and effective. Keep in mind nothing is without concern of safety. Everything has risk. Any of the over-the-counter medication, to the food you eat, to the items you buy, to your daily activities. …
“What we do know is that the Covid vaccine is much safer than many of the other activities anyone engages in on a daily basis. In the spirit of transparency, the CDC has listed known adverse reactions of the vaccine. All of which do not even come close to the potential complications of the Covid virus itself.”
Documented adverse reactions (which are vaccine type-specific) include anaphylaxis, myocarditis and blood clots, though the CDC lists these incidences as rare among the roughly 168.3 million Americans who have been fully vaccinated, which is about 51% of the total population.
Experts say about 85% of Americans will need to be vaccinated to bring the pandemic under control, an L.A. Times article states. Until then, new variants can gain a foothold among the unvaccinated population, continuing to overwhelm hospitals as surges ebb and flow.
“(The) Covid vaccine’s initial development was based on the original version of the virus, not the subsequent variants,” Ramirez said. “However, we do continue to monitor the vaccine’s effectiveness as it holds up against developing variants. An analogous question to you would be do you ensure measures to have the most up-to-date security version for your phone, device or computer? The longer this virus is around, the more opportunities there (are) for it to mutate with further variants, which continues to threaten our safety and vaccine effectiveness.”
On Monday, there were two Covid patients hospitalized at Dignity Health Mark Twain Medical Center (MTMC), Calaveras County’s only hospital. While CEO and President Doug Archer says there are no concerns about capacity currently, significant increases in hospitalizations across the state and in neighboring counties are cause for concern.
On July 14, there were 23 available ICU beds in San Joaquin County, according to state data. On Aug. 13, there were four. On June 27 in Stanislaus County, there were 42 ICU beds available, and on Aug. 14, there were 20.
“Covid is ramping up,” Archer said.
In response, some hospitals including MTMC are ramping up mitigation efforts in a controversial decision to mandate vaccines for all employees. The hospital announced its new rule on Aug. 12, following a mandate from Dignity Health.
“After a thoughtful and thorough review, Mark Twain Medical Center has decided to require all of its employees, physicians, Advanced Practice Providers, volunteers, and others who provide care in our facilities to be vaccinated against COVID-19,” the statement reads. “Our people have responded selflessly to the needs of the community throughout the pandemic, and this decision is further proof of our commitment to keeping our communities safer and healthier. If you are medically able to get the COVID-19 vaccine, we urge you to do so.”
The announcement received mixed reactions from the community on social media, with some praising the move and others calling it illegal.
Last week, a Covid vaccine mandate passed its first-ever legal test before the Supreme Court when the justices upheld Indiana University’s requirement that students be vaccinated to attend classes in the fall.
Meanwhile, local public health is increasing its testing and vaccination efforts, with walk-in vaccine clinics coming up at Grocery Outlet in Valley Springs, Utica Park in Angels Camp and the Murphys Library. No-cost mobile testing sites are also available at various locations and dates. Visit the Calaveras County Public Health website or Facebook page for the latest information.