To many, it may seem the COVID-19 pandemic is quickly approaching the conclusion of its final act: Vaccines are being rolled out, Gov. Jim Justice authorized indoor dining establishments to function at 100% capacity and the CDC decreased physical distancing guidelines in schools from 6 feet between desks to 3.
These initially appear to be indications the public can also lessen personal safety protocols and that normalcy is right around the corner.
However, local experts said there is still a need for the precautions individuals have been taking for a year and that we have not reached the end of the COVID-19 pandemic just yet.
Monongalia County Health Department executive director and county health officer Dr. Lee Smith provided data regarding the county’s COVID-19 cases, which he said shows no true decline in COVID-19 cases in Monongalia County – in fact, the most recent data shows an increase.
The data supplied by Smith rewinds to March 20, 2020, when COVID-19 data in the county started being recorded.
According to the data, Monongalia County entered the red zone Nov. 8, 2020, with 25 or more positive COVID-19 results per every 100,000 individuals. The county did not come out of the red zone until March 4, 2021 – 116 days after entering it.
The county has now entered the orange zone with 15-24 positive COVID-19 results per every 100,000 individuals.
Smith said the path to zero cases in Monongalia County, or even the path that would lead to the county falling into the green zone, “is still some ways away.”
The weekend’s numbers indicated an increase in positive cases in the county last week. Smith said the county has yet to see what increase may occur when the incubation period for infection after last week’s St. Patrick’s Day festivities is over.
Smith said it is not only Monongalia County seeing an increase in positive cases – West Virginia as a whole is, too. On March 3, the state reported 136 positive cases. On March 20, the state reported 386 positive cases.
Additionally, Monongalia County health authorities have noted three mutations of the virus that causes COVID-19 are in the area.
“I think sometimes people don’t see the bigger picture,” Smith said.
Smith said he knows the public is tired of the pandemic and its precautions and they put extra emphasis on the vaccine rollout. He said the staff at MCHD is experiencing pandemic-related fatigue, too, and have been working seven days a week to control the spread of disease in Monongalia County.
“I can’t yet take my foot off the brake and put it on the accelerator. That’s just not our best practices. We do what we can to try to convince people to do the right thing, and sometimes people want to take exceptions where the rules don’t apply in this situation,” Smith said.
Smith said the way individuals should approach the pandemic moving forward depends on what their approach was in the first place. He said now is the time to ask the public to do what is “most reasonable,” which includes continuing to make an effort not to contract or spread the disease, getting tested when necessary and getting vaccinated when the opportunity arises.
“I can’t tell the future … I think we’re heading in the right direction. I think things are improving, but now is not the time to throw off all precaution,” Smith said.
Another medical professional agreed with Smith.
Christopher Martin, professor with the West Virginia University School of Public Health and global engagement office director with the Health Sciences Center, said those fighting to control disease need all of the tools available to them to reach their goals.
Martin said while none of the tools used to fight the COVID-19 pandemic – masks, social distancing, vaccines – are 100% effective, together they allow for increased efficiency in managing the spread of disease.
“From the perspective of the science, the more tools that we use, the quicker we can get this under control. So, whatever tools work, we should continue to use them,” Martin said.
He said people should continue to take protective measures because the pandemic cannot be controlled by the available vaccines alone, which should not be treated as passports to neglect personal safety.
According to Martin, the impact of vaccine hesitancy might still lie ahead of us. He said as vaccine doses become more plentiful, he fears doses might remain on shelves and expire due to the unwillingness of some individuals to take them.
“It’s really, really important for everyone to recognize that our progression toward normalcy very much is contingent upon people having confidence in vaccines that are safe and effective. If that doesn’t happen, then this could be much more protractive,” he said.
Martin compared the pandemic to a marathon. He said the public should be hopeful because it is reasonable to assume we’ve run most of the marathon, and the finish line is in sight.
“What you do when you’re seeing the finish line is you don’t stop and change your sneakers, or pull out. This is the time to let it all out because the finish line is right there,” Martin said.
Martin said said he believes the next phase of improvement, when the world will begin to feel a bit more familiar, may begin over the summer, if the country experiences good vaccine uptake.
“There isn’t going to be a morning where we wake up and say, ‘Wow, it’s all behind us.’ It’s not going to be a threshold like that. It’s going to be a gradual return to normalcy, and that may be something that is not the same as what we started off all this [with],” Martin said.