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September 23, 2021 · OPINION

Each of us can help end the COVID-19 pandemic

By April Achter
Health Department Epidemiologist

I moved to Culpeper County in 2006 and delivered my son a few months later. My sweet neighbors took me under their wing. A retired Army drill sergeant and his wife opened their home and their hearts to my little family. She was the first COVID-19 death in our community, and he quickly followed.

Another good friend lost both of his parents within 30 days of each other. His mom had her vaccination scheduled for the Tuesday after she died. My uncle died of congestive heart failure – a remote doctor’s visit didn’t reveal his badly swollen ankles and he did not mention them.

Your small but mighty local public health team has been working non-stop since February 2020. We have tried to slow the spread, through isolation and quarantine and then vaccination, so that our healthcare providers can manage sick patients within the existing system. We are tired. Your healthcare workers are tired.

We were all seeing a light at the end of the tunnel during the summer months . . . and the Delta variant changed the landscape. It is more contagious than earlier strains and means that we need layered mitigation again, such as wearing masks indoors. Our schools and businesses are open. This is fantastic news, but as long as people gather, viruses have the opportunity to spread from person to person.

Last week, the external review board for the FDA (Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee) met to review the data on booster doses (Pfizer). The board voted YES for a booster shot for those 65 and older and people at high risk for serious illness, and suggested that the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) consider a booster dose for those with occupational exposures. The FDA authorized Pfizer booster shots based on these recommendations. ACIP will meet this week to issue guidance on vaccine policy for clinicians and public health officials, and we will keep you posted.

The bottom line, though, is that boosters will not defeat COVID-19. The risk of getting COVID-19 after vaccination is small, and the risk of getting severely sick is even smaller. From a population perspective, a booster dose may be helpful but not nearly as effective as immunizing unvaccinated people.

The reason we sacrificed with school closings, masks and distancing was because people were dying. We were all susceptible. We did not have treatments or vaccines. Over the last 19 months, 1 in 500 Americans have died of COVID-19. But numbers, especially big ones, are cold and distant. These numbers are people – mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, husbands and wives.

Public health promotes and protects the health of the people and the communities where they live. We try to prevent disease from occurring, or to control the spread of an existing one. The work is invisible until you stop doing it or something goes wrong. A strong public health system is not exciting at all, because when it works, nothing happens. You drink the water from your tap, enjoy a meal at a local restaurant and pet your vaccinated animals. If we prevent an outbreak, no one knows.

Our public health interventions have somehow become political statements, and they do not need to be. It is causing many people to remain unprotected. Vaccination drastically reduces the chance of getting sick, and deaths are overwhelmingly among the unvaccinated. For those vaccinated, COVID-19 mostly resembles a cold.

If you are vaccinated, the next step is to help your friends, family and neighbors decide to get vaccinated themselves. Your voice will carry much more weight than mine. Help us protect our community and provide some much needed relief to our healthcare workers by encouraging those that are vaccine hesitant to get the shot.

While we work to vaccinate the susceptible, and hopefully soon our children, continue to wear your mask indoors, wait to go back to work/school if you are sick, watch your distance and wash your hands. We are learning to live with COVID-19, and for now need to use all the tools we have available.

A Warrenton resident, the writer works as the Rappahannock Rapidan Health District’s population health director.
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