Now that I'm 75, I am no longer a member of any clubs and don't serve on any boards with one exception. I am a board member of Kintegra, which operates federally qualified health centers in Gaston, Lincoln, Catawba, Cleveland and several other North Carolina counties.
Our board held its regular monthly meeting on Wednesday and one of the topics of discussion was the pandemic. Is it really over? Should we stop wearing masks?
While the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths from the COVID virus has declined in the United States, the worldwide number of new cases is actually up for the last two weeks. In some locations, like China, Vietnam, and South Korea are seeing the most cases they've had during the pandemic, which--by the way--is now two years old as of this month.
A year ago, we were hopeful when the number of cases had declined substantially, that the pandemic might be ending. Then came the delta variant. Late summer and Fall of last year saw that mutation become the dominant variety and cases increased far beyond what they had been in the previous year.
When delta began to decline in the US, the omicron variant took over. Huge numbers of new cases were reported in January. Now, that surge is over. The question now is: will there be another? The answer is: we don't know--but the history of this virus seems to indicate there might well be.
The good news is that in the US, we've achieved a much better rate of vaccinations. That has meant that while the number of cases during the omicron surge was up, the percentage of those requiring hospitalization and the number of deaths declined.
In North Carolina, the number of new cases reported by the NC Dept. of Health & Human Services declined to just under three thousand last week--down from almost four thousand the week before. 50% of the state's population is now fully vaccinated and has had a booster shot; 75% of adults have had at least one dose and 38% of teens and children.
The Kintegra medical staff report Wednesday spoke about the requirement of masks in our locations. The medical staff said it is still too soon to end the mask requirement. Other medical facilities--doctors' offices and hospitals--have also continued their mask requirement.
There are those who argue that the masks do no good. It is true that the cloth masks that were very popular a year or more ago don't provide much protection from spreading the virus. They do, when worn properly, keep the wearer's breath from spreading quite as far (similar to covering your mouth when you cough) but they don't offer any protection for the one wearing those masks. The N95 and KN95 masks DO offer protection, both to others and to the wearer.
On a visit to an Atrium facility recently, I noticed that one man who entered wearing a cloth mask was given a surgical or procedural mask to wear instead. Those masks, while still not as good as the N95 or KN95 variety, are a little better than the cloth masks.
While there are those who still proclaim their objections to the vaccines, the evidence is now overwhelming that they DO work, and the number of side effects that have been reported are a very small percentage of the number of people who have been vaccinated.
Now comes the bad news from Washington.
The federal government is no longer covering the cost of COVID-19 testing and treatment for people who don’t have health insurance. That’s because federal COVID funding has run out. The White House has asked Congress for another $22.5 billion for testing, vaccines and treatments, but so far, that hasn't been approved.
Previously, our facilities (like others) told patients to get a COVID test and get the vaccine, "it’s FREE!" You didn't need to be a patient and you didn't need to have any insurance plan. Kintegra's community health centers serve many people who are uninsured. Thanks to grants, we can provide medical services to them at a reduced price based on their ability to pay. Many of our patients are what one might call 'the working poor'--they aren't qualified for Medicaid and their employer offers no health insurance; and they can't afford private insurance.
A few months ago, Kintegra was testing hundreds of people every day. That number has now declined to less than ten. Most people appear to believe (wrongly) that the pandemic is over.
Congress reduced what the administration had requested, but even then, they didn't yet approve it. Now those who do testing won’t be reimbursed, and they won't be reimbursed for vaccinations, either.
Two other comments on COVID: first, the science didn't change. Our understanding (and that of the CDC, etc.) did change as we learned more about the virus and COVID-19, the disease it produces. This virus was only identified in November 2019. We're still learning about it. Second, our best way of ending the pandemic IS vaccinations. Lincoln County has at last reached 50% of the population vaccinated. There are still 48% who are totally unvaccinated. Human bodies are like petri dishes for the virus. We've already seen the emergence of variants like delta and omicron. So far, we have avoided what one learned epidemiologist calls 'the monster virus.' Had the mortality rate of SARS-coV-2 been the same as SARS-coV-1 (outbreak in 2002-2004 but never that big in the US), we'd have millions more Americans dead from it. Each new case represents a potential for a mutation (development of a new variant).
Lincoln County had a daily average of new cases of 3.8 over the two weeks that ended Wednesday. That's down from 121.4 avg. per day the previous 30 days. At the moment, things are looking much better; but we've been there before.
I personally knew 17 people (on a first name basis) who have died from the virus. It isn't a political hoax and unfortunately, while vaccinations and other steps we've taken have helped, it isn't over. Over six million people worldwide have died from COVID. 162 of them lived in Lincoln County. The masks are now more about your personal protection than avoiding to infect others. Only the N95 and KN95 varieties offer you any substantial protection. It is likely that we'll soon be getting fourth doses of the vaccines--the level of immunity is only partial for those who have had a variety of the virus and for those who have been vaccinated, and it diminishes with time, but there is no reasonable doubt that the vaccines have helped to reduce the seriousness of the disease and have saved lives. Get vaccinated!