The way Laura Kalnajs sees it, the honeymoon from worrying about COVID-19 is over.
Cases are climbing again in the Fredericksburg area—and across the state and nation—and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that even fully vaccinated people again start wearing masks inside public places.
“We spent a couple months, kind of feeling the freedom, but I’m getting nervous again,” said Kalnajs, who lives in North Stafford. “It just seems to be at a tipping point now and we’re going in the wrong direction. We had a couple months’ honeymoon, and things were getting better—then boom!”
Kalnajs is fully vaccinated and said she might not be as worried if she lived somewhere like Vermont, where 75 percent of the population has had at least one dose of the vaccine. Figures are considerably lower closer to home. Vaccination rates for those with one shot are 60 percent in Virginia and 47 percent in the Rappahannock Area Health District, which includes Fredericksburg and the counties of Caroline, King George, Spotsylvania and Stafford.
As vaccination rates have slowed, a highly transmissible variant of COVID-19 first discovered in India has caused case numbers to go up again.
“Delta has changed the landscape,” said April Achter, population health coordinator with the Rappahannock–Rapidan Health District, which includes Culpeper, Fauquier and Orange counties. “With delta on the rise, wearing a mask indoors is an extra layer of prevention.”
That’s what CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky suggested on Tuesday when her agency changed a May recommendation that said those fully vaccinated no longer had to wear masks indoors. Because there have been breakthrough cases—people becoming infected even though they’re fully vaccinated—and because their viral load, or level of infection, was as high as those who hadn’t been vaccinated, she cited a need for yet another change.
The CDC is recommending that fully vaccinated people wear a mask in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high COVID-19 transmission. The agency applies four levels of transmission rates—low, moderate, substantial and high—based on new cases per 100,000 people and the positivity rate, or percent of positive tests among all those taken, in the last seven days. The ratings are based on data from July 19–25.
King George has a moderate rate, but every other locality in the local health district—Fredericksburg, Caroline, Spotsylvania and Stafford—has substantial rates of transmission, according to the CDC.
Transmission rates are moderate in Culpeper and Fauquier counties, but high in Orange County. It’s a total mixed bag in the 10 counties of the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula. Five have high rates: King William, Richmond, Northumberland, Lancaster and Middlesex counties. Gloucester County’s level is considered substantial while transmission rates are moderate in King and Queen, Mathews and Westmoreland counties.
Essex County is one of only two localities in Virginia with low transmission rates. The other is Nelson County west of Charlottesville.
How are people who live in one locality, work in another and visit friends and family or go out to eat in yet another supposed to interpret the CDC rates and recommendations?
“It’s just so confusing,” said Mary Chamberlin, public information officer with the Rappahannock Area Health District.
Chamberlin suggested the same course of action she did months ago before the delta variant arrived on the scene.
“I just feel like people need to take responsibility for their own health,” she said. “If that means you’re fully vaccinated and you go into indoor public spaces and don’t have a clue about others’ vaccinations, then by all means mask up.”
The CDC also suggests that fully vaccinated people who have compromised immune systems or are at increased risk for severe disease from COVID-19—or have someone in their household in that situation or who isn’t fully vaccinated—wear a mask regardless of an area’s transmission rate. And the federal agency recommends that schools implement universal indoor masking for all students, teachers and staff regardless of their vaccination status.
Some of the reasons people give for not getting vaccinated include that they’re young, healthy and don’t have any underlying conditions that put them at risk. Chamberlin, who has a chronic illness, said “so many of us never know that we have an underlying condition until something triggers it,” such as a virus. “I tell people, why take the chance?”
As public health officials have stressed regularly, the Virginia Department of Health’s approach to COVID-19 has “always been driven by science, and we continue to emphasize that the only way out of this pandemic is through vaccination,” said Dr. Rich Williams, director of the Three Rivers Health District which includes Westmoreland County.
Charles Griner, who retired from the military and lives in King George, said he will follow whatever recommendations are put forth by scientists and based on data. He’s not sure how the state could do it, but he thinks it’s time the governor mandate that everyone be vaccinated.
“I’m tired of us being held hostage by these people who are living in a dream world and won’t accept that COVID-19 is a very serious illness,” he said. “There’s so many of them who still won’t get a shot and I don’t understand it.”
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425