CHARLESTON — The 2020 holiday season started a COVID-19 surge that lasted until March, and despite vaccine availability, health experts say this year has the potential to follow the same trends.
The more contagious delta variant is the dominant strain of the virus this season. Vaccination rates in West Virginia and beyond are largely stagnant. Uptake for booster doses in people who are fully vaccinated — which are proven to improve their immunity against the still raging virus — has been slow.
“We saw this last year, yes, with the start of Thanksgiving and into the new year,” said Dr. Sherri Young, interim health officer at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department. “We do have (vaccines widely available) this year, but people should still be cautious, especially if traveling and gathering with families.”
Over the past two weeks, West Virginia’s rate of transmission for COVID-19 has been on the rise, according to state health officials, meaning the outbreak is growing. This began just as the state’s long summer surge began to slow down.
Nationwide, increased vaccination rates — at least compared to last year — are inspiring people to travel, some for the first time since the pandemic began.
West Virginia has yet to cross the 50% threshold for fully vaccinated residents. Vaccines for children ages 5 to 11 have been available for several weeks, and 8,143 doses have been distributed among them. With Thanksgiving on Thursday, it’s impossible for any of these children — even if they do receive their second shot — to be fully protected from COVID-19 by then, as immunity is strongest two weeks following the last dose.
While Cabell County is now listed by the state Department of Health and Human Resources as third among West Virginia counties for its rate of population immunized with at least one dose against COVID-19 at 62.9%, it is 11th in fully vaccinated status at just over the 50% mark, according to the Cabell-Huntington Health Department.
“Although each fully immunized person has a reduced risk of infection, hospitalization or death compared to an unimmunized person, our current level of community immunization is not protective against further surges of COVID disease,” the health department wrote in its holiday advisory.
Statewide, active cases in West Virginia were two times higher last year than what they are today, according to the state dashboard. The daily percent positivity has been consistent this year compared to the same time last year, and total cumulative percent positivity is higher than it has been at any previous point in the pandemic.
Last year’s holiday season came as West Virginia still had COVID-19 mitigation strategies — like an indoor mask mandate, social distancing guidelines and crowd capacity limits — enforced. All of those policies ended at the state level in June.
According to a national survey commissioned by the American Hotel & Lodging Association and conducted by Morning Consult, 29% of Americans are likely to travel long-distance for the upcoming holiday. That’s 8% more than was reported in 2020, but still below pre-pandemic levels.
AAA reported that 2021 will see the largest single-year increase in people planning to travel since 2005.
For West Virginians who plan to travel, local health department directors recommended researching their destination and what COVID-19 spread and guidelines look like there. If there is high spread, plan accordingly by possibly avoiding large, indoor gatherings and wearing a mask.
Young said the risk of COVID-19 infection while traveling is highest for people who are unvaccinated.
The Cabell-Huntington Health Department is following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance in recommending continued indoor masking, including for family gatherings involving multiple households with mixed or unknown immunization status, while incidence indicators are “high” or “substantial.”
If people are immunocompromised and have not yet received a booster shot or additional dose of the vaccine, they should be especially cautious, Young said. Know what the risk level is for you at your planned celebration, and act accordingly.
“The risk is still there this year, and I believe we will see that reflected in case numbers (in coming weeks),” Young said.
The easiest, most efficient way to protect yourself from COVID-19 is by vaccination, Young said. Though it’s too late for those who are unvaccinated to receive the shot and be immune by Thanksgiving, there is plenty of time to prepare for Christmas.
The Cabell-Huntington Health Department reminds residents that, as they shop, visit and gather to observe upcoming holidays, half of those around us could be unvaccinated.
“Just as we dress in layers for colder weather, let’s layer up against COVID by using disinfection, ventilation, hygiene, distance, mask and our best layer — vaccine,” said Dr. Michael Kilkenny, CEO and health officer of the Cabell-Huntington Health Department.