By Callie Hietala
Martinsville and Henry County could face a deadly winter as vaccine rates in the area remain low and the Delta variant continues to surge.
The importance of getting vaccinated was the key message on Wednesday when the Martinsville-Henry County Chamber of Commerce resumed its weekly COVID Zoom conferences.
“My fervent hope was that we would never have to meet this way again,” Henry County Administrator Tim Hall said, but “action, or rather inaction, has put us here.”
He was joined in the conference by representatives from the City of Martinsville, Sovah Health, and the West Piedmont Health District (WPHD).
“Things are getting worse. We had a chance to slay this dragon and we didn’t,” Hall said. “I think it’s incumbent upon all of us … we’ve got to get this thing under control because the worst that could happen is we shut down again. I’m not sure how many businesses could survive another shutdown.”
Internally, Hall said county officials have met several times and are looking at policies they may put in place to help stem the tide of new infections.
“The unvaccinated are making those that can’t get vaccinated sick,” said Nancy Bell, public information officer with the WPHD. “We’re starting to see an uptick in cases among children and folks who aren’t yet eligible for the vaccine, and almost all of the infections are among people who are not vaccinated.
“At the rate we’re going right now,” Bell said, “we are in the trajectory for a very deadly winter.”
She added that the majority of hospitalizations and deaths are now among the unvaccinated. However, “we can still turn it back. Vaccination is the only strategy that will safely bring an end to the pandemic period.”
Bell said she hopes that the recent FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine will help some to feel more confident about getting the shot. Hospitals, the health department, doctor’s offices, and pharmacies all offer free vaccines, often with no appointment necessary.
“Once we start giving booster shots to those who need them, there’s going to be a sense of scarcity again. So, I’m telling you if you haven’t gotten this vaccine, now is the time. Now is the time,” said Bell.
Recent evidence suggests a decline in COVID-19 vaccine efficacy over time. This new data coupled, with the severity of the Delta variant, are a perfect storm, she said. People should schedule a vaccine booster shot about 8 months after receiving their second dose. She encouraged those who are immune compromised to schedule a booster now.
“If everyone had gotten vaccinated, (declining vaccine efficacy) wouldn’t have been a problem. The problem is the mutations,” said Dr. Sheranda Gunn-Nolan, Chief Medical Officer with Sovah Health.
“I also want to be really clear that the vaccines you’ve taken your whole life were about 50 percent effective at best. The difference was everybody else took them, too.”
Gunn-Nolan added that, “I’m on 526 days of this. That’s 526 days of fighting for lives with no cure. Except now we have prevention.”
She noted that Sovah Health currently has 34 COVID-positive patients across both campuses, with 20 in Danville and 14 in Martinsville.
Nolan-Gunn said the patients seen now are much sicker than those seen at the beginning of the pandemic, and there are already discussions about the potential of a new variant emerging.
“Vaccines could have prevented where we are right now,” Gunn-Nolan said.
“It’s really time for us all to step up and do what we can,” said Bell. “I feel like we have a moral obligation to do the right thing.”
For more information on COVID-19 in Virginia, visit vdh.virginia.gov. New dashboards have been added to the website to track cases by vaccination status and outbreaks. (See related story inside.)