While the COVID-19 delta variant has been making headlines and swamping hospitals for months, local statistics may show signs that its wave is beginning to decline.
“We just passed our third consecutive week of a decrease in incidence,” or new cases, said Caleb Harrison, an epidemiologist at the Bear River Health Department.
The health district, which includes Cache, Box Elder and Rich counties, has seen “slight decreases each and every week (in newly reported cases) — this latest one was just a 6% decrease from the previous week,” he added.
Not only are newly reported COVID-19 infections trending downward, the health district’s percentage of virus tests coming back positive has decreased, as well, bolstering Harrison’s confidence that the data truly reflect a real-world slowing in the virus’s transmission.
The good news comes with a common COVID-19 refrain: We’re not out of the woods yet.
“Someone might interpret this to say, ‘Oh, COVID’s done,’ but there’s still a lot of people that can still be infected and that will be infected throughout the following months,” Harrison said.
Vaccination, avoiding close contact with people outside one’s household, and wearing masks in indoor public areas are all still recommended by health officials to help limit transmission of the virus.
The recent numbers are consistent with CDC mathematical models that show the Delta wave may have peaked, Harrison said. Provided that more contagious variants don’t emerge and children start getting vaccinated soon at about the same rates as adults, those models show COVID-19 infections tapering off until March.
“So those are the two big assumptions that those (models) are all based on, but it does appear that the Delta wave, we’re past the peak of it,” Harrison said. “That either you were vaccinated or if you were susceptible and interacting with others that you may have gotten infected already, so kind of a bubble immunity there that’s taking effect.”
While no COVID-19 vaccine is currently available in the U.S. for children under the age of 12, late last month Pfizer-BioNTech submitted trial data to the FDA, asking for emergency use authorization in children 5-11. FDA officials are reviewing the data, and the earliest the vaccine could be approved for for those ages is a committee meeting set for Oct. 26.
Harrison said the Bear River Health Department is already discussing how to continue its current vaccination services but with a higher demand once vaccines are approved for younger children, and he anticipates that doses for that age range will be sent to local pharmacies as well.
Given the importance of vaccinating children, Harrison said the health district is continuing its efforts to educate people on the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, working to debunk misinformation surrounding them.
A little over 56% of the U.S. population, or 185 million people, have been fully vaccinated against the virus “under the most intense safety monitoring in U.S. history,” according to the CDC.
While some people have worried that the vaccine could have serious side-effects so long after a shot that the trials couldn’t have caught them, generally vaccines side effects have historically been observed within six weeks, the CDC states.
Serious adverse events after COVID-19 vaccination are usually short-term and are very rare, usually affecting only a handful of people per million vaccinated, according to data gathered through the CDC’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System. While they do occur rarely, the side effects of COVID-19 vaccines are overall much less serious and much more short-lived than the symptoms of COVID-19, which researchers are still uncovering.
The signs that the health district is on the downhill side of the Delta variant is “a welcome bit of news, and we’re crossing our fingers that these trends continue,” Harrison said, but they’re a silver lining in a serious situation. Case counts are a “leading indicator” in epidemiology, and other indicators — including hospitalizations and deaths — lag behind.
“We haven’t crossed the peak yet of hospitalizations and deaths,” Harrison said. “Those tend to lag behind the peak in cases by a few weeks, so I’m keeping my eye on what’s going to happen there in the next few weeks, if we’ll cross the peak of that as well.”
A total of 138 deaths among health district residents with COVID-19 have been reported since the pandemic began. Sixty-one of those are reported by Cache County, and 77 in Box Elder. Eleven of those deaths occurred in the past 30 days.
Hospitalizations are at an all-time high locally, Harrison said. Across the district, 152 residents have been hospitalized with the virus in the past 30 days: 91 in Cache County and 61 in Box Elder.