With more families expected to travel over Memorial Day, local health officials are waiting to see what the holiday will mean for the spread of COVID-19.
Dr. Sherri Young, health officer at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, said the weekend could serve as a signal for what the rest of summer will look like, more than a year into the coronavirus pandemic.
“With what we’ll see two weeks after Memorial Day, I think it will be a good barometer for where we’ll be for the rest of the summer,” Young said. “I hope — very cautiously optimistic — that as we see the disease rates and hospitalization rates go down, we can maintain that. If we get through Memorial Day, I think we can do well for [the rest of summer].”
In 2020, before COVID-19 vaccines were available, long weekends and holidays consistently led to spikes in case counts as people traveled and gathered, bringing the virus back with them.
Young said this was expected then, but with vaccinations now available, she’s hopeful this year will be different.
As of Friday, 43.2% of Kanawha County residents have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and another 52.3% are partially vaccinated, according to the state. Statewide, 37.3% of residents are fully vaccinated, while 43.8% are half vaccinated.
COVID-19 case counts and deaths are on a steady decline at both the state and county level. This is good news, Young said, but the pandemic isn’t over.
“Cases are down. Deaths are, thankfully, down,” Young said. “But the risk is still there, and if we start to see an increase, we learned last summer it’s hard to control this once it takes off.”
While cities worldwide are lifting COVID-19 restrictions day-by-day, Young said travelers should still be aware of the situation in the area they’re traveling.
The risk is lower for those who are fully vaccinated. For people who have opted not to receive a COVID-19 vaccine — which medical experts across the board agree is a safe and effective defense against the virus — more precautions should be taken.
“If you’re unvaccinated and you travel, the CDC recommends you get [COVID-19] tested, and you should certainly wear a mask to protect yourself. Some places are requiring tests, so be sure you know the policies wherever you are going,” Young said. “While some destinations may not require masks, people should know — especially if they’re [unvaccinated] — the risk they’re taking on. And, you know, the easiest thing to avoid that risk is to get a vaccine.”
Deborah Snaman, clinic director at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, said at the agency’s Monday board meeting visits from people looking to get vaccinated for overseas travel are starting to increase after over a year of decline.
Increased travel — especially among those who are unvaccinated — brings the risk of carrying different strains of COVID-19 into West Virginia, Young said.
So far, vaccines have proven effective against most of these variants. But as June rolls around, marking about six months since the first vaccinations were distributed in West Virginia, officials both locally and nationally are keeping tabs on immunity.
The health department is offering antibody tests to people who want to be reassured of their immunity, Young said.
“Part of that is peace of mind for people who want to be sure, really sure, that they’re still immune,” Young said. “Most of the people first vaccinated were our health care workers and first responders, so that’s an added level of protection for the public, too. If immunity does wane, we’ll know before it happens to most of the population.”
There is no evidence so far of vaccine efficacy fading. Though vaccinations were recently approved for distribution among children ages 12-16, the past few weeks have seen a decline in new vaccinations, according to the state.
This “vaccine wall” isn’t surprising. Young urged people to continue being cautious, and if they aren’t yet vaccinated to call their doctor or any other trusted, experienced medical professional.
“We’re very happy that we’re seeing a downtick in the number of cases, and we’re starting to see the benefits of vaccination from all the efforts put forth for over 150 days now,” Young said. “That being said, we want to be careful in reopening. If [residents] follow these guidelines and get the vaccine, we won’t go backwards on this.”