COVID-19 continues to circulate within Hamilton County and the surrounding region — something that likely will affect upcoming holidays as well as hospital staff, officials say.
"It's important for folks to remember that while we're tired of COVID, it is still here, and we need to continue to exercise caution when we are out and about and in our activities," Hamilton County Health Commissioner Greg Kesterman said Wednesday.
During a Nov. 17 briefing with reporters, Kesterman said that there are about 5,200 cases of COVID-19 within Hamilton County; that's an increase from 4,800 cases just one week ago. The seven-day average is 186 cases per day, which also has been on the rise in recent weeks after a bit of a plateau. The reproductive value (which measures how fast a virus or disease can spread within a community) for the past two weeks has been 1.05 (experts say that R generally should be below 1.0 to slow or halt an increase in cases). "Once again, this is very closely tied to cases, and as cases start to increase, the pandemic will start to grow within a community," Kesterman said.
Hospitalizations also are rising within the region, with 346 COVID-19 cases presently admitted. As of Wednesday morning, 110 are in the intensive care unit, and 79 are on ventilators, Kesterman said. The majority of COVID cases are occurring in people ages 50-79, and 85% of those are among unvaccinated people. Kesterman pointed out that while breakthrough COVID cases do occasionally occur in vaccinated individuals, the symptoms and danger are much more mild than in those who have not been vaccinated.
"The number-one tool... is get a vaccine," Kesterman said. "It's extremely effective at preventing people from serious COVID-19 illness."
In Hamilton County, about 59.74% of the total population has started a COVID-19 vaccine series (children ages 4 and younger are not yet eligible), according to Ohio's coronavirus dashboard. On Oct. 28, that number was 58%. About 54.78% of all county residents are fully vaccinated (two doses for Pfizer and Moderna vaccines or one dose for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine).
Kesterman said that Hamilton County's goal remains vaccinating at least 80% of its population, a benchmark that county officials originally had hoped to reach by July 4. He said it's difficult to estimate when the county might reach that threshold, but it's important for individual communities to get there.
"In general, the more protected your population is, the less likely you will see a disease spread," Kesterman said. "There is always, for every vaccine that we have available, a percentage of the population that is unwilling or unable to get that vaccine because of medical issues or religious concerns. Having a really high number of your population that's vaccinated creates less opportunity for the disease to spread from individual to individual."
Dr. Patricia Manning-Courtney, chief of staff at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, also urged vaccinations, especially the newly available COVID-19 vaccines for children ages 5-11. Manning-Courtney said that in the two weeks that Pfizer's vaccine had been authorized for use in younger children, Cincinnati Children's administered 2,600 pediatric doses, with many parents saying they wanted to protect an immunocompromised family member or prepare to see grandparents over the winter holidays. She added that many doses also were administered to children of regional healthcare staff, who have seen firsthand the disease's impact and who wanted to protect their own families.
"As a pediatrician, we're often asked 'Well, what would you do with your kids?' I think it's a great question to ask pediatricians. You should know what's the standard we hold for our own children," she said.
"I don't know a pediatrician who hasn't run to get their children vaccinated. I can tell you that pediatricians are so, so supportive of this move, and they have done this with their own children," Manning-Courtney continued. "And so if that matters to you as a parent what a pediatrician would do, I can promise you that they're getting their kids vaccinated."
But COVID still continues to spread among children, she said.
"Kids are still getting sick. We're still seeing cases of COVID in our region. We still have children in the hospital," Manning-Courtney said. "These are healthy kids. These are kids with health concerns but who are basically healthy getting hospitalized with COVID, sometimes in our ICUs, including in this past week. So we can't emphasize enough the importance of protecting kids, getting them vaccinated, and the safety of this vaccine."
She added that some parents are still taking a "wait-and-see" approach, which she understands. But the pediatrician urged parents to take action soon.
"I don't want you to wait so long so that your child is one of the remaining pieces of wood for this fire that is the COVID virus," Manning-Courtney said. "COVID will find the unprotected individuals, and those will be unvaccinated individuals, and that's where the virus will live and continue to circulate."
Both Manning-Courtney and Kesterman stressed vaccination and situational awareness as the holidays approach. Kesterman said COVID-19 remains a concern during the upcoming indoor months and that each group will have to determine their risk tolerance, especially when interacting with unvaccinated individuals. He added that he will be gathering with family for Thanksgiving, and that all attending have been vaccinated, including the children.
"If you're getting together with a family that's choosing not to get vaccinated, there is truly increased risk," Kesterman stressed. "If you are vaccinated and they are not, you have some protection, and you'll have to make that decision. If you're inside, wearing a mask is another layer of protection to protect you and your family."
Manning-Courtney said that hospitals would have difficulty with the sustained surge of COVID-19 cases the region saw last winter, when Gov. Mike DeWine and the Ohio Department of Health instituted a curfew and other protective measures to try to control the virus.
"Last December and January were terrifying. They were really frightening times. We didn't see where it was going to end. We knew that we had some vaccine on board, but it was still limited," Manning-Courtney said. "We can't do that again. We really can't do that again as a healthcare system and as a region. So all the more reason to get vaccinated so we keep that peak down and we don't live through what we lived through last winter."
The doctor stressed that local adult and children's hospitals still are straining from COVID-19 patients, which is affecting care and safety in other areas.
"The volume of patients with COVID in the hospitals, they are the buffer that we usually have to absorb more patients, to take on emergencies if there's a crisis, God forbid. But that buffer is filled right now still with COVID-positive patients," she said. "And we're busy. You know, hospitals are busy with deferred care, with other illnesses, and we need that buffer. We need it for staffing purposes, we need it for safety purposes. So we need you to be protected so that if you do get COVID, you don't have to go to the hospital.
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