‘At this point, folks passing away from COVID, it’s a never-should-happen event,’ says Dr. Mark Condoluci of Jefferson Health New Jersey.
By Matt Skoufalos | July 15, 2021
Despite being home to more than 267,000 fully vaccinated people, or slightly more than half the local population, Camden County residents should not consider themselves done with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic yet.
After weeks of declining infection rates, illnesses and deaths attributed to complications from the virus are on the rise, especially among the unvaccinated, Camden County Commissioner John Young said in a briefing Thursday.
“Our numbers have started to tick up slightly over the last few weeks,” Young said.
“People are still getting sick from COVID-19, and people are still dying.”
After having hovered at 0.5 percent for the past several weeks, the countywide infection rate has risen to 1.2 percent on average, and “the vast majority” of those getting sick are unvaccinated, Young said.
Recently, the county sustained three more COVID-19-related deaths, bringing the local impact of the pandemic to 1,236 lives lost, the commissioner said.
According to Dr. Mark Condoluci, Infectious Disease Physician at Jefferson Health New Jersey, those fatalities are eminently preventable at this stage of the pandemic.
“At this point, folks passing away from COVID, it’s a never-should-happen event,” Condoluci said.
Driving that uptick in cases is “a pretty steep increase” in prevalence of the B.1.617.2, or “delta” variant among specimens analyzed by health officials, said Camden County Assistant Public Health Coordinator Caryelle Lasher.
That increase is “happening pretty quickly,” Lasher said. At the end of June, delta accounted for about 20 percent of local cases sampled for genetic sequencing. Two weeks ago, that number was up to 35 percent, and the latest reports have the delta variant exceeding 70 percent of samples analyzed.
“It is highly more contagious than the [B.1.1.7] alpha [variant], the original strain we’ve been seeing here in New Jersey and worldwide,” Lasher said.
The increased transmissibility of the delta variant, particularly among the unvaccinated—a demographic that includes children who are too young to receive COVID-19 immunizations—means that it’s too early to predict what the local landscape will look like by the next school year.
“We could have an entirely different story come the fall, and that’s going to guide our decisions for children,” Lasher said.
“Last year, we saw there was a natural dip in the summer; it came back in the fall,” she said. “I can’t predict what’s going to happen yet, but I think what we have seen with this virus is that it’s very dependent upon our actions.
“Right now, people who are unvaccinated should be masking up,” Lasher said.
Condoluci said fully vaccinated people have “a drastically decreased likelihood” of transmitting the virus, while adding, “if you’re going into an area where you think you might be exposed, then you want to take mitigating factors,” including masking and social-distancing.
“The wall to prevent the spread starts with the mitigation factors, but also vaccinations,” Condoluci said. He also noted that “the mRNA formulations, the Moderna and the Pfizer, are really effective against this variant.
“Yes, it’s here; yes, it is spreading,” Condoluci said. “Yes, it’s something that we have to remain vigilant against, and yes, you can protect yourself against that.”
The only breakthrough cases—COVID-19 infections of people who’ve been fully vaccinated against the virus—have come among those with underlying health conditions, or who’ve sustained “repeated, high-risk exposures,” which includes healthcare workers, Lasher said.
Those Camden County communities that have been hit hardest by the pandemic— Camden City, Cherry Hill, Lindenwold, Pennsauken, Voorhees, and Winslow—may attribute that impact to residents who travel or a disproportionate number of those working in healthcare, Lasher said.
“Largely though, it came down to behavior-driven outcomes,” she said. “Communities that were resistant to social distancing or not wearing a mask is where we’d see these pockets of cases.
“We’re still seeing the same,” she said. “Communities that have lower [vaccination] rates, families that are unvaccinated; we’re seeing it run through those groups as well.”
Young again renewed his appeal for residents who haven’t gotten their COVID-19 vaccines to do so, and soon; the better to help prevent another, broader flareup of the virus.
“Every vaccination gets us closer to herd immunity and putting this pandemic behind us,” Young said. “I made a conscious decision a long time ago not to tell you to get vaccinated, but pleading with you to get vaccinated.
“In every natural disaster that’s ever happened in this country, we’ve always come together in this country and found a way to make things right,” the commissioner said. “This is no different. I’m asking and pleading with people to make sure your neighbor is safe. Be your brother’s keeper.”
Read our ongoing round-up of COVID-19 coverage here.
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