Olmsted County residents provided questions for the first in what is expected to be a series of public health videos addressing the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Thursday’s video tackled topics ranging from the current rate of the spread of the virus, to vaccine concerns.
Here are a few things that were shared:
1. Spread in Olmsted County appears to be slowing
The county reported 373 new confirmed COVID cases during the seven-day period ending Tuesday, a less than 2 percent drop from the previous seven-day period.
“We are seeing a slowing of our acceleration,” Olmsted County Public Health Director Graham Briggs said.
The region remains an area of high community transmission under Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
“It’s difficult to predict going forward,” Briggs said of whether the recent surge is cresting with the county seeing three weekly reports that have each had more than 300 new cases.
2. Returning to school raises concerns
With children younger than age 12 unable to be vaccinated, Briggs said health officials will be closely monitoring whether cases increase among students.
“There’s going to be some risk introduced to the situation there,” he said.
Briggs said handwashing, masking, social distancing and other measures will help students reduce viral spread.
“It’s a multi-tiered strategy that reduces risk significantly but doesn’t remove it,” he said.
Dr. Randy Hemann, family practice physician and chief medical officer at Olmsted Medical Center, said adults can also help, especially if a school isn’t requiring masks.
“It’s important for the parents to be vaccinated,” he said. “It’s important for, maybe, the staff to be vaccinated. Those factors beyond what we do with our children will be helpful.”
3. Children have been hospitalized with COVID locally
“The rate of severe illness in children is lower than it is in the older population, but that doesn’t mean children don’t get this,” Briggs said.
He said a severe case leading to the hospitalization of a child was seen in the county recently, but local rates remain lower than in other parts of the country.
Hemann noted nearly 400 children died from COVID in the first year of the pandemic.
“It seems like a low number, but that’s a pretty high number,” he said. “It’s … a third of (how many) children died of leukemia last year.”
Mayo Clinic infectious disease expert Dr. Elie Berbari said the cases of severe illness and death among children point to the need for continued vaccination efforts, with the potential of approval to administer vaccines to children ages 5 to 11 by the end of the year.
4. Unvaccinated people of all ages are driving rates of seriously ill
Nearly 80 percent of eligible county residents have completed a vaccination series, with the spread of serious illness taking a toll on the other 20 percent.
“The cases we are seeing in the hospitals, about 90 percent of those are unvaccinated,” Brigg said.
5. Breakthrough illnesses are being found in routine screenings
Briggs said people going into the hospital to give birth or have elective surgery are being tested and surprised to find they have COVID.
“We are seeing a piece of the population that has very mild symptoms, similar to what we would call the common cold,” he said.
In rare situations, he said, some people have more severe illness after vaccination.
“It’s extremely rare,” he added. “Your chances are much, much higher of having severe disease if you are unvaccinated, and that’s clear here in Olmsted County, at the state level and across the nation overall.”
6. Catching COVID isn’t the same as being vaccinated
With 14,917 confirmed COVID cases among Olmsted County residents since the start of the pandemic, the health officials said having been sick isn’t the same as being vaccinated.
Hemann said emerging research indicates a combination of the two is actually the most effective protection against future illness.
“That multimodal insult to our immune system makes it even stronger,” he said. “I think there are factors as we are trying to learn more about this virus that are showing us the vaccine as benefit for all.”
Berbari agreed: “I feel the most comfortable meeting people who have the vaccine and (a history of) natural infection as an infectious disease specialist.”
7. Booster shots are likely on the horizon
Olmsted County’s COVID-19 Operations Section Chief Leah Espinda-Brandt said work continues on planning for booster shots when federal officials determine whether they are needed.
“There are a lot of conversations going on,” she said, adding that the county, OMC and Mayo Clinic have been working on plans.
While large-scale booster planning remains uncertain, Berbari said people at the highest risk are already receiving added doses.
“They are eligible for a booster right now,” he said, encouraging people with immunity concerns to check their vaccination status and discuss options with a health care provider.