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Local officials stress importance of vaccination as COVID numbers rise

Elected leaders and public health officials in Seneca County are sounding the alarm- calling it a ‘critical time’ for the region in its fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

Vickie Swinehart, who serves as public health director in Seneca, said that with several new counties added this week to the ‘substantial’ transmission category per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the time is now to slow the spread.

This news comes as local public health leaders will be tasked with helping school districts come up with fall reopening plans for students.

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“This is a critical time to remind residents that our two most critical tools to stop the spread of this illness are wearing a mask and receiving the COVID vaccine,” Swinehart said in an email this week. “It is a fact that individuals who have been fully vaccinated can become infected with the Delta variant and they can become infected and spread the virus to others. No vaccine is 100% effective, however most individuals who test positive after being fully vaccinated have mild symptoms and do not require hospitalization.”

However, like many other counties in the region- mask mandates from the early days of the pandemic have been replaced with mask requests. “All residents are encouraged to wear masks at any venue that they feel vulnerable and at risk,” Swinehart continued. “Individuals must assess their own health status and make their personal decision regarding mask wearing.”

At the end of the day, Swinehart says the path forward for all communities- including Seneca is through vaccination. “I cannot stress enough the importance of individuals receiving the full dose of the vaccine. As I stated before, no vaccine is 100% effective, we have seen case of chicken pox or other illnesses in fully vaccinated individuals,” she explained. “However, the symptoms experienced are usually less severe. The vaccine is widely available and free to anyone who wants to receive it. Since the vaccine has become available and the vaccination rates have increased, we have seen a drastic decrease in the number of individuals testing positive.”

She says there’s been an increase in the number of cases in Seneca County, as well as the region-at-large. “This makes it even more critical that people who are eligible go get the vaccine,” she continued. “We need to protect those individuals who are unable to receive the vaccine at this time. Specifically, those that are younger than 12 years of age.”

As for the start of the fall semester for K-12 students- Swinehart predicts that the vaccine will be available for that age group by late-fall or winter. “The goal is to have school resume as scheduled with all students in attendance full-time. Increasing the vaccination rates is one of the most critical parts of making this happen successfully,” she added. “The increase in cases we are now experiencing combined with our lower vaccination rates is very concerning. School re-opening is less than one month away. We all have the same goal of having all students return to full-time in person learning. However, we need to ensure that this is accomplished as safely as possible.”

At this point, 51.5% of the population in Seneca County is fully-vaccinated. “This is certainly not the level of vaccination that we had hoped to achieve. We encourage anyone who is eligible to receive the vaccine where ever they can get it. The health department offers walk-in clinics weekly and also by appointment. I also know the vaccine is available at pharmacies. Individuals can receive the vaccine wherever it is available, you do not have to receive it in the county where you reside,” she added, reminding residents of their options.

When it comes to vaccination, Swinehart says there is one major benefit: Less transmission.

While the CDC has said that those with breakthrough cases can transmit the virus- it’s transmitted as a lesser volume, which is good news for public health officials who are continuing to advocate for the vaccine.

“We know that there are individuals who are asymptomatic and who have COVID but are not being tested. Some of these individuals are being identified because they are tested prior to a medical procedure and their test comes back positive even though they do not have any symptoms,” Swinehart explained. “The issue is that if they had not been tested, they would not have known they were positive and they could then be in the community, possibly infecting other individuals. The health department currently offers free, rapid testing weekly in our offices. They are offered by appointment as well as walk in. We see very few individuals at this time. Some individuals will seek testing because they will be traveling and they are required to be tested prior to that. The test results are available within 15 minutes.”

While there is the likelihood that cases continue to rise over the next two to three weeks- Swinehart hopes it doesn’t morph into a repeat of last fall and winter.

“We are stressing the same message that we were saying at this time last year; stay home when you are sick, and wear a mask when in public. The different tool that we have now that we did not have a year ago is the vaccine. Increasing our vaccination rates is the most important tool that we have to combat this virus,” she concluded.