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The first COVID vaccines received approval for use in adults more than a year ago. With another wave of COVID-19 now sweeping the globe, health professionals across North Carolina are imploring residents to get vaccinated.
“If you’re someone out there who’s been waiting to see how things roll out, this is the time to get vaccinated,” said Stacie Saunders, Buncombe County public health director, last week in Asheville. “They are safe and effective.”
Some people focus too much on the vaccine not preventing a COVID infection altogether, she said, when its real strength is lessening the harm COVID can do.
“The function of a vaccine is not just the ultimate prevention of infection,” Saunders said. The COVID vaccines “are even better at preventing serious illness, hospitalization and death.”
As the omicron variant continues its unrelenting spread, many more are becoming sick and filling emergency rooms around the state. As of Tuesday, 5,090 people were hospitalized with COVID across North Carolina — a high for the pandemic now entering its third year.
“Our hospital system is currently operating at or near capacity,” said Matt Garner, interim director for the Moore County Health Department in Carthage. “Due to the volume of patients, wait times have certainly increased.”
Last week, almost all health professionals interviewed for this story said they were worried about capacity in the next couple of weeks.
“We are delaying the surgeries that we feel can safely be delayed, recognizing that this is less than ideal for many of our patients,” said Nancy Lindell, spokeswoman for Asheville-based Mission Health, which operates hospitals across Western North Carolina.
“We are urging our community members who have not yet been vaccinated to please do so. While the vaccine has not been as effective against the omicron variant, it continues to be extremely effective in keeping people from having to be hospitalized and from dying.”
As of Tuesday, the state had recorded 20,335 deaths since the pandemic began. Of those, the vast majority have been unvaccinated. State data shows that, for the week ending Jan. 15, nearly 72% of people hospitalized with COVID were unvaccinated. Of all people with COVID in intensive care units throughout North Carolina, nearly 83% were unvaccinated.
In the year since a vaccine became available, 3-in-4 adults in North Carolina have had at least one shot of a two-course COVID vaccine, with about 70% of adults having both doses, or one shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, N.C. Department of Health and Human Services data shows.
In Person County, that figure falls to around 65% of all adult residents, according to DHHS.
At the Person County Health Department in Roxboro, Director Janet Clayton said she’s seen a dramatic increase in COVID test positivity.
“As we have seen across the state and the world, it’s very transmissible,” she said of the omicron variant last week. “Our positivity rates here in our county, they increased within a week from 14.6% to 26.1%. Our latest data is 38.3% of the tests reported are positive.”
She worries about whether there will be room for patients if they have a medical emergency, only to find the hospital is full of COVID patients. Already the health department opened a COVID testing site near Person Memorial Hospital’s emergency room to alleviate pressure on the system.
Even vaccinated people can still get sick from omicron, but the illness is much milder and less likely to land them in the hospital. Clayton said she recalls several unvaccinated people with long hospital stays.
“It makes one wonder if they’d been vaccinated (whether) they would have had less severe symptoms,” Clayton said.
Even the young and healthy should get vaccinated, she and other health professionals said.
“Consider the consequences if they contract and transmit COVID to those at-risk populations,” like older people, those with preexisting conditions and children younger than 5, who cannot yet get vaccinated.
Remembering the basics to prevent COVID spread remains important, Saunders said. “We can still have this layered approach that helps reduce our risk” of contracting COVID, she said. Limit interactions with people outside of the household and wear a medical-grade mask or a multilayered cloth face covering.
Smaller hospitals in rural areas are also strained by the latest wave of COVID infections.
“Our capacity has been challenged by this latest surge of COVID-19,” said Greg Caples, CEO of Haywood Regional Medical Center in Clyde.
Community spread is high in Haywood County, he said. About 68% of adults have had at least one vaccination, according to DHHS figures.
“We all have a role to play in ensuring that our community remains healthy and that everyone here has access to the care they need,” Caples said. “Our staff is counting on the public to do their part.”
He said, “There is significant evidence that grows daily indicating that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. … There is a great deal of misinformation out there about vaccines, so I encourage anyone on the fence to speak with a personal physician they trust about their concerns.”
However, even counties with high vaccination rates are seeing increases in hospitalizations as omicron infections rise.
As omicron continues to take hold, in Wake County some hospitals have, at times, diverted ambulances away from full emergency rooms. Patients are not turned away if they show up.
“They’ve had a rapid influx of patients,” said Jose Cabañas, chief medical officer of Wake County government.
About 86% of adults in Wake County have had at least one vaccination, among the highest vaccination rates in the state.
When asked what he would say to unvaccinated people who were undecided about getting the shot, Cabañas said he would love an opportunity to sit and talk with them and listen to their concerns.
“Billions of people around the world have been vaccinated,” Cabañas said. “We know the vaccine is safe and effective in preventing complications of this disease.
“I would hope to have a conversation, in order to keep yourself safe, your family and your community safe, and provide protection from severe COVID disease — vaccination is the right thing to do.”
Those interested in getting vaccinated against COVID can find a vaccination site near them at https://takemyshot.nc.gov.