Health departments: Take precautions as COVID-19 cases rise

Essex and Franklin counties continue to see a rising number of COVID-19 cases, with Franklin County surpassing 100 active cases this week for the first time since March.

Franklin County Public Health issued a public advisory on Tuesday, Aug. 24, urging everyone, regardless of vaccination status, to again take additional safety precautions to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

“People are interacting more closely with each other, which is allowing the disease, including the more infectious delta variant, to spread more easily throughout our communities,” the advisory from the health department reads. “All of us — vaccinated and unvaccinated — are empowered to help stop the spread by following the COVID-19 safety guidelines we’ve practiced since the start of this pandemic.”

The department is specifically requesting that residents wear masks in all indoor public places, wash their hands frequently, sanitize high-touch surfaces, stay home if they feel sick, and for those who plan to gather outdoors, limit the size of those gatherings.

The department also continues to recommend that everyone get vaccinated. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave the Pfizer vaccine full approval on Tuesday; the Moderna and Johnson and Johnson vaccines have received emergency authorization in the U.S. but have not yet received that same full FDA approval.

Why get vaccinated?

The health department is recommending these safety precautions again, regardless of a person’s vaccination status, as local case numbers rise and the delta variant spreads.

Recent research has shown that vaccinated people infected with the delta variant might be just as contagious as those who are unvaccinated. This differs from earlier studies, which showed that vaccinated people who were infected with previous strains of the virus — not the delta variant — were largely unable to infect others, according to the New York Times.

However, the vaccines do still provide extra protection against COVID-19, according to the health department.

“Getting vaccinated reduces your chances of contracting COVID-19, protects you from severe illness requiring hospitalization, and helps to eliminate the virus’ ability to mutate and create new variants,” the advisory from the health department reads. “Getting vaccinated also helps to protect those who cannot be vaccinated, such as children 11 and under, from contracting COVID-19.”

About 48.4% of Franklin County residents and 59.4% of Essex County residents are fully vaccinated, according to the state Department of Health.

U.S. health officials, including the chief of the CDC, have called for those who are already vaccinated to get a booster shot eight months after their second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine.

“Booster shots for all individuals vaccinated with Moderna and Pfizer vaccine will become available this fall,” the health department’s advisory reads. “The plan to roll out booster shots is forthcoming from the state Department of Health. We will let residents know when the plan is released. The FDA has not issued a booster recommendation for those who received the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. We will keep county residents informed as we are informed.”

High transmission

Both Franklin and Essex counties now have “high” levels of community transmission, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That means a high number of cases where the source of a person’s infection is unknown. Both counties moved into the CDC’s most severe transmission category within the past two weeks.

In the past 20 days, as of Tuesday, 169 people in Franklin County had tested positive for COVID-19, according to data from the county health department. Approximately 40% of the new cases found since early July have been among those who are vaccinated.

In the first 20 days of August last year — before the delta variant, before any vaccines were authorized for use in the U.S., while mask requirements and social distancing were still in place, and while the CDC still advised against travel — three people in Franklin County tested positive for COVID-19.

In the past three weeks, as of Tuesday, 119 people in Essex County had tested positive for COVID-19. It’s unclear how many of those people were vaccinated. The Essex County Health Department has not yet released an updated total of breakthrough infections.

In the first three weeks of August last year, 63 people tested positive for COVID-19 — however, this includes the first batch of cases associated with the deadly COVID-19 outbreak at the Essex Center nursing home in Elizabethtown, which claimed the lives of 17 residents. Altogether, at least 110 people associated with the facility tested positive.

As of Tuesday, there were 101 people with active cases of COVID-19 in Franklin County.

As of Monday, there were 42 people with active cases in Essex County.