As you can see from the arrows on this week's dashboard, Easthampton cases have continued to rise - not rapidly, but at a steady pace. We currently have around 40 active cases of COVID-19 in the community - at least, 40 that are reported. Testing numbers continue to be fairly low, so it's expected that there is more virus circulating than we actually have confirmed. Our county is still deemed as "Substantial" transmission by the CDC - surrounded by "High" transmission counties. Data modelers continue to predict that we're not at our peak yet for this current wave, here in the Northeast. There are different opinions about when that will occur - without a strong surveillance program in this country, we look to other places like the U.K. and Israel, and their trends have been rather contradictory. We do know that the Delta variant continues to grow in its proportion of new U.S. cases - anyone with COVID-19 right now is assumed to have been infected with this variant. Knowing what we know about Delta, I want to emphasize the benefit of indoor public masking and social distancing for all of us, not just the unvaccinated or immunocompromised. By now, we know:
- Vaccinated people can carry and transmit the Delta variant of the virus without knowing it, even at similar levels to unvaccinated folks, though for a shorter period of time
- Masks reduce how much virus we may release into the air when we breathe, talk, sneeze, cough, shout or sing
- Masks also reduce how much virus we receive into our bodies via our noses and mouths when we are in the presence of a contagious person
- Less virus entering our bodies means a smaller chance we'll actually contract COVID-19
- Less virus entering our bodies means even if we do get COVID-19, our symptoms will likely be reduced because of a smaller "inoculation dose" of the virus
Easthampton is currently under a public indoor mask advisory from the Board of Health. Hopefully, most people are abiding by it. What is the risk, some might say, of not masking indoors - especially if you are a healthy or even vaccinated person? To be honest, if you are already well-protected, the risk is mainly to others. 18 months ago, when we were most worried about our elders dying from the virus and there was no vaccine in sight, we changed our behavior in significant ways to protect the most vulnerable. Right now, masking publicly indoors is key to reducing community spread of Delta.
This week's center graph depicts some of that vulnerability - which is the difference in vaccination rates and in COVID-19 cases this summer by race and ethnicity. There continues to be a significant gap in vaccine coverage among our residents who identify as Black or Hispanic, compared to Asian and White. What can a difference of 11% or 13% in vaccination rates make? When you add in the likelihood that many members of these communities work in public-facing industries or have more difficulty distancing physically from sick coworkers and family members, you can expect to see a disproportionate amount of COVID-19 cases - which is what we have. Over this summer, the proportion of Hispanic cases rose from 11% overall, to 23% of new cases the past few months in Easthampton. The proportion of Black cases went from about 2% overall, to 8% during that time. Among Whites, it went from 57% overall, down to 23% of new cases. Note: these data are estimates based on self-report, and the number of "other" or "blank" entries are many. Also, while we have "multi-racial" as a data category for vaccinations, we do not have it for reported COVID-19 cases, making it hard to know exactly what is going on within subgroups. But this recent demographic shift in new cases is too noticeable to ignore.
We know that there are many reasons why someone may not yet be vaccinated, including being too young, too busy, not having the correct information, having a deep mistrust of government initiatives based on previous experiences, and more. And we understand that addressing these barriers effectively requires time and consistent effort - or vaccine mandates, which we are starting to see in certain key sectors. What we can all do right now is wear our masks in public indoors - at least until community transmission goes back down to reasonable levels and stays there for a while. Booster shots this fall and winter will help reduce the amount of virus circulating, too.
Amy Hardt, MPH, RN
Public Health Nurse