COVID-19 transmission rates are climbing at rates officials had not anticipated, rates so rapid that the Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department warned Thursday that they could reach levels not seen since the heights of the virus’ surge this past winter.
The department sent out an advisory Thursday morning cautioning Ohio County residents that COVID transmission rates are high now, and forecasted to increase in the coming weeks. In terms of transmission and severity of the disease, officials anticipate a range last seen in January.
During that month, according to WOCHD releases, there were 843 new cases and 19 deaths reported this past January.
Wheeling-Ohio County Health Administrator Howard Gamble said Thursday he thought there could be a rise in infections following the summer vacation season. He didn’t expect a surge like what he’s seeing now.
“If we saw any increase we thought we’d see from the holiday season, it would be a small increase, and that was what we saw previously last year,” he said. “We saw a small increase and it dipped down. As we went into school last year, we didn’t have this many cases, by far.
“We didn’t think we’d see an increase and if we did, it would be manageable and we could handle it.”
That hasn’t been the case, Gamble said. According to the Department of Health and Human Resources COVID-19 dashboard, there were nine active COVID cases in Ohio County on July 9. There were 51 in the county as of Aug. 1 and 355 in the county as of Wednesday.
The virus also has started to more deeply infiltrate younger age groups. The department said August cases have included all ages, from young children to older adults. It also said that partially and fully vaccinated people represent one in five new Ohio County cases for the month. The delta variant is now the dominant circulating strain in West Virginia, causing more than 90% of recent infections.
Reports also show that severely ill patients in local hospitals are much more likely to be unvaccinated than all reported cases. In talking with WVU Medicine Wheeling Hospital and other local hospitals, Gamble said that they’re all seeing the same problem.
“The dramatic increase in urgent care that is needed for a (COVID) positive is draining the system,” he said. “It’s a trickle-down.”
Gamble also said that, on the first day of school in Ohio County, there were adults and students already identified as COVID-positive and students already are in quarantine.
The best way to fight the virus, Gamble said, remains getting vaccinated. The WOCHD will hold walk-in vaccination clinics from 9-11 a.m. and 1-3 p.m. today, as well as Monday through Friday this coming week. There also will be a special clinic from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Wednesday at the Blatnik Gym at West Liberty University.
Gamble has been pleased at the increase in vaccinations he has seen in recent weeks. There have been several reasons that people have come in for shots. They’re returning to school. Their places of work are either requiring vaccinations or they’ll have to go through constant testing or wear a mask if they aren’t vaccinated.
“I’m happy we’re seeing people come in,” he said. “We need to be at 80 to 85% of our eligible vaccinated to be able to say we’re more in control of this virus than what we are now. That doesn’t mean you’re at herd immunity, but you’re pretty close.”
Other ways to help prevent COVID spread, according to the WOCHD, include masking up in all indoor public spaces, regardless of vaccination status, and considering masking in crowded outdoor spaces, maintaining a safe distance, washing hands and sanitizing surfaces frequently and using contactless or contact-lowering services as much as possible.