Washtenaw County Health Department Recommending Masks for People Indoors or In Public Spaces

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Citing higher transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the Washtenaw County Health Department is recommending that all people, vaccinated or not, wear masks in indoor and public spaces. The health department is also advising people to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as possible.

“Additional precautions are needed, and we must take them seriously,” said Jimena Loveluck, health officer for the Washtenaw County Health Department. “We know how to slow the spread of illness. We are asking everyone to mask up indoors in public settings. Get vaccinated if you are eligible and have not yet done so.”

Free vaccination is available at many locations.

Loveluck said increased vaccination rates may change what COVID-19 brings in the coming weeks.

“It is incredibly frustrating to be facing another wave of COVID. At the same time, we are optimistic that vaccinations will continue to be effective at preventing severe illness or death,” continues Loveluck. “Vaccinations can change what we see in the coming weeks drastically – but only if we use them and all of our prevention tools effectively.”

According to news released by the health department, local transmission levels are "moderate" on the CDC's scale and like to increase to "substantial" on the scale, as several neighboring counties have, in the coming days.

The number of positive tests for SARS-CoV-2  in Washtenaw County has climbed from almost none to about 30 per day recently. The rise is similar to the one last year.

In addition, positivity is rising, climbing from .3 percent to 4 percent since mid-June. It's also higher than it was last year - though overall testing levels are way down compared to last year.

Is Washtenaw County heading into another fall wave, similar to the one we experienced after a moderate increase in the summer last year? Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, spokeswoman for the Washtenaw County Health Department isn't sure. But now is a good time to get vaccinated, she said.

"It’s hard to know if we’ll see another wave, but we are definitely trending up. Vaccines are very effective at preventing the severe illness and death, so if unvaccinated people get vaccinated we can prevent hospitalizations/deaths as cases increase," Ringler-Cerniglia said. "What’s not clear, of course, is the impact of the variant. Hopefully, the vaccine can continue preventing hospitalizations/deaths, even as cases increase. In other words, if most everyone (or everyone) is vaccinated, we may still see cases but they should be less severe."

There have been more reports of breakthrough cases with the Delta variant spreading through America. Those cases remain relatively rare and health department officials steadfastly stand behind the vaccine's ability to protect people from severe cases.

In May there were 6.8 unvaccinated COVID-19 patients for every vaccinated patient. That number was 4 to 1 in June and 3.75 to 1 in July. In Washtenaw County, there are approximately 2 vaccinated people for every unvaccinated people, not including the under-12 population that has made up 11 percent of the cases but just one percent of the hospitalizations.

Health department data shows 60.8 percent of people between 12-64 years old are fully vaccinated.

Because hospitalization data lags behind case data, it's difficult to determine if the rise in hospitalizations matches the rise in cases. Last year in Washtenaw County hospitalizations started rising again in June and then dipped in August before they started rising in October.

Statewide numbers are larger and do show a trend. The number of patients in critical care beds fell to a low of 57 on July 13.  That number is now up to 120 - the highest it's been since June 18. By comparison, there were 234 patients in ICU on Aug. 3.

And then there are the masks. 

Why is the health department recommending that vaccinated people wear masks when they're telling us that the vaccinations work well at protecting us from severe symptoms?

Once again, it comes back to the idea that masks reduce community spread.

"When someone has a respiratory infection, masks can prevent them from spreading it. They can also protect the wearer. Because the variant is more contagious and because vaccinated people can become mildly ill, universal mask use can prevent spread or curb increasing spread," Ringler-Cerniglia said. "Part of the challenge with COVID in general and especially with the more contagious variants, is that people are contagious right before symptoms start. This means they can infect others before realizing they’re infected."

The CDC's determination that vaccinated people can spread the virus means vaccinated people can contribute to community spread.

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