Emily Rice Published

Officials Call For Vigilance Against Respiratory Illness

School supplies are seen on a desk in front of a chalkboard as a protective face mask hangs from a pencil.Steve Heap/Adobe Stock

As fall arrives, COVID-19 numbers are starting to increase. Just this week, the state Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) released the latest numbers for COVID-related deaths, and they indicated 15 more people had died in just the last week. 

Sherri Young, the interim secretary of the DHHR, and incoming secretary for the new Department of Health, spoke with Appalachia Health News Reporter Emily Rice about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Rice: Tell me about the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic and what the public needs to know.

Young: So one thing that the public needs to be aware of is that we have gotten to the point where we can manage and live with COVID. But there’s some things that we can do to keep ourselves safe. And with keeping yourself safe, that means that if we feel sick, or we feel like we have a cold, let’s test, let’s make sure that that’s not the case. If you do test positive, you don’t have to report it, but you should take the proper mitigations to make sure that you reduce the risk of spreading it to other people. And that means staying home and staying away from others for five days, until you’re asymptomatic. And then if you return to work for the next five days for the 10-day total, that you’d wear a mask and just be respectful of your co-workers and people in the general public.

Rice: The FDA and CDC have approved a new COVID-19 vaccine to target variants of the virus. Is that vaccine available in West Virginia?

Young: Yes. So as soon as the ACIP (Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices) made their recommendation last week, for those over the age of six months to get that shot, they started shipping out from the warehouses into our pharmacies and into our local health departments. So we’d recommend maybe calling just ahead of time just to make sure that they do have the availability, but most of those have already been shipped. So the availability for that updated vaccine is right in our back door. It’s a great opportunity. And while you’re there, you may want to think about that flu shot as well.

Rice: The new vaccine is recommended for West Virginians ages six months and older, but who will be able to get the shot?

Young: So the difference now is that when we first had vaccines, back in the height of the pandemic, we were giving them out about as fast as we could, and trying to keep up with demand. So the priority had to be around those who had illnesses, those who are older and more vulnerable. And then the recommendations came for the younger folks. The great thing now is that we have the availability for most anybody who wants to get that COVID vaccine. But we still need to make it a priority and educate ourselves on the fact that those who have immune disorders or may be on medications that make their immune system weaker, they do need to make it themselves a priority to get those vaccines because that’s going to help them stave off and hopefully help them from getting COVID. And if not, so then at least having a less severe case due to their medical illnesses.

Rice: What can you tell me about long COVID? Will this new vaccine protect against it?

Young: At different times throughout the pandemic, we’ve identified people who just did not get better from the initial stages, and that can be respiratory illnesses, fatigue, a plethora of things, anything from the loss of smell, and taste that people experience some of the minor symptoms, as well as some very major symptoms are lingering, and people who’ve had COVID, the research that we do have available is that it is much less likely to develop long COVID if you’ve had the vaccine, and that’s because your body has a better ability and can recognize that virus faster because you’ve had the vaccine. It gets your immune system ready to say, ‘Hey, this is a potential threat to us.’ And it helps you mount that defense for your body against COVID.

Rice: Can you speak to the recent increase in infections and hospitalizations we’ve seen attributed to COVID-19?

Young: As we are going into the winter months, we started seeing an uptick around late August, early September, which is when kids go back to school, that’s also when we start to see other respiratory illnesses. So, in some ways, COVID is starting to behave like other respiratory illnesses that we see. When we first were introduced to COVID, there was a different pattern that we were seeing with it. This gives us the ability to have some time to perfect the vaccination updates and make sure that they’re appropriate for what we are seeing at the time. And for right now, the strains that we are seeing are the ones that are present in the vaccines. So we do see an uptick, we’ve seen an uptick of about 3.2 percent in the emergency room visits as well, due to COVID. The way that we monitor it is a little bit different because people do have home tests and other things that don’t get reported the same way.

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting with support from Charleston Area Medical Center and Marshall Health.