CLEVELAND — As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to soar here in Ohio, the state’s top doctor is once again stressing the important role vaccines will play in bringing this pandemic to an end.
On Thursday, Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff was joined by the Medical Director of Infectious Diseases for Ohio Health, Dr. Joseph Castaldo, for his weekly pandemic briefing.
According to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard, Ohio added 7,897 new cases Thursday, along with 255 new hospitalizations and 24 new ICU admissions. Thursday's update also shows 52.60% of eligible Ohioans have started the vaccination process.
Vanderhoff says the surging case numbers across the state are “certainly trouble” as the highly infectious delta variant continues to spread through unvaccinated communities. We’re seeing 20 times the number of cases that were being reported as recently as July, he said.
Both doctors said vaccinations will be key to getting this delta surge under control.
“When you get vaccinated you are much less likely to get an infection compared to someone who is not vaccinated,” said Castaldo.
Vaccinations don’t only protect the person who rolls up their sleeve.
“In areas where there is more vaccinations of adults,” Castaldo explained, “there is less of a risk to children. And when you look specifically at each individual county in Ohio, there is different vaccine uptake. So counties that have higher vaccination rates are expected to have lower COVID within their school communities.”
Vanderhoff echoed the important role vaccines will play going forward.
“The way out of this pandemic…is immunity,” he said. According to the doctor, the safest and most reliable way to gain that immunity is through vaccination. As more Ohioans get vaccinated, it could turn the virus into “something that is more endemic and more mild in its nature.”
Castaldo even foresaw a future where COVID-19 is a seasonal virus like the flu.
“You can kind of see the pathway happening,” he said, “that this specific coronavirus turns into an endemic virus very much like influenza where we see more activity…in the winter months. You get tested, you maybe get a booster every couple years.” He also predicted we may soon see a pill to treat COVID-19 patients similar to Tamiflu’s use in treating flu symptoms.
He spoke of his own vaccination in December 2020 and addressed concerns of waning immunity, explaining that while you may lose protection from contracting the virus over time, you won’t lose protection from serious illness or hospitalization.
“My antibody levels naturally come down and by having lower antibody levels, I may be at a higher risk of getting infection with the delta variant. However, the cell-mediated immunity, I have that from being vaccinated. If I get an infection with the delta variant or another variant my cell-mediated immunity will kick in, I’ll clear the virus, and I will have a wonderful layer of protection against a severe outcome,” he explained.
The sheer numbers of unvaccinated COVID-19 patients flooding into hospitals is starting to strain our hospitals, according to both doctors. And the strain isn’t logistical right now. Castaldo says hospitals aren’t running out of beds, but health care workers are running out of patience.
“The mood in the hospital is really full of emotion,” he said. “There is an overall feeling of sadness, physical and emotional fatigue and frank frustration.”
That frustration stems from the reality that a vast majority of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated. While Castaldo says we are seeing breakthrough cases, COVID-19 infections in vaccinated Ohioans, they’re mostly happening among vulnerable populations.
He said “there are clear patterns” when it comes to breakthrough cases in Ohio, like cases in those over age 80, which he said was “not surprising at all, knowing vaccines don’t work as well” in that age group. He’s also seen breakthrough cases in people with weakened immune systems, transplant patients, and those receiving active chemotherapy for cancer.
“Those are the types of patients that we are seeing in the hospital with breakthrough infections after being fully vaccinated,” he explained.
Vanderhoff said the best way to alleviate some of the pressure on our hospital systems is to get vaccinated.
“Our health care infrastructure is absolutely essential, and it becomes ever harder for our doctors and nurses and other health care providers to provide that essential care to us as Ohioans when the hospital is inundated by COVID-19," he said.
Both doctors were also unequivocal when it comes to masks: they work.
“The science is clear,” said Castaldo. Masking is “an important mitigation recommendation.” The doctor said masks have two goals: to protect you if someone around you coughs or sneezes and to protect those around you if you have an asymptomatic infection.
They both support and encourage masking in schools, with Castaldo stressing “there is no physiological harm for a child to wear a mask. I actually think it’s going to be more harmful for them to have remote learning or, God forbid, they require hospitalization for COVID-19.”
Right now there is no statewide mask mandate for Ohio and masking has been left up to individual school districts. Vanderhoff explained why he’s strongly encouraging masks and touting their effectiveness, while stopping short of recommending a mandate to Ohio Governor Mike DeWine.
“We have to recognize this is a democracy,” he explained. “In a democracy, people have the right to govern and they have made it very clear that there is a low tolerance for mandates.”
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