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Hendrickson: Latest COVID-19 Spike Raises Several Concerns

Monica speaks at podium
Joe Deacon
Peoria City/County Health Department Administrator Monica Hendrickson .

Peoria County is once again under an increased COVID-19 warning level with a substantial risk of transmission, as vaccination rates stagnate and case counts surge with just weeks remaining until the start of the 2021-22 school year.

It’s a combination of circumstances that has Monica Hendrickson, administrator of the Peoria City/County Health Department (PCCHD) quite concerned.

“What we’re seeing is the Delta variant has led to a spike in our cases, and now new guidance about making sure that even vaccinated individuals are masking when they’re indoors,” said Hendrickson, adding that people being lax in adhering to mitigation is exacerbating the issue.

“We’re seeing situations where unvaccinated individuals have gone to areas and have maybe participated in activities that put them in high risk; people not masking properly, not socially distancing, not even getting tested. So sadly, it’s just what we expected when you kind of have all those levels of mitigation fall apart.”

Metrics for the week ending last Saturday show Peoria County at 355 new cases per 100,000 new residents — seven times more than Illinois Department of Public Health’s warning level target of 50 cases. Additionally, emergency room visits for COVID-like illnesses increased to 9.3%.

Figures reported Friday by the PCCHD show 151 infected Peoria County residents isolating at home, six patients hospitalized with COVID-19, and one death linked to the pandemic in the past 24 hours. According to Hendrickson, less than 0.5% of new COVID cases in Peoria County are breakthrough infections in vaccinated individuals.

“We were at a point where we were averaging about 1-2 cases a day in Peoria County, but now we’re actually at 21 cases a day for our current seven-day average,” she said.

Meanwhile, the stalled vaccination rate is making the COVID-19 problem even worse. The latest IDPH statistics show Peoria County with 45.9% percent of residents fully vaccinated, with the entire Tri-County at just under 45.6%.

Hendrickson said a majority of the newest cases and hospitalizations involve unvaccinated individuals.

“If vaccine uptake does not increase and we continue to see mutations upon mutations happening, I think all of us are concerned that we’ll see another backslide, which is so frustrating because this time last year we did not have a vaccine,” she said.

“Now we know more, and we have a pharmaceutical intervention available. I mean, we should have knocked this out of the park by April of this year, and we didn’t.”

Peoria County’s test positivity ticked back up to 4% as of July 23 after registering at 2.1% the week before, with cases growing among younger individuals.

“We’re in a situation where the 0-29 population actually makes up the largest number of cases that we have active,” said Hendrickson, noting younger people may not get as sick or require hospitalization, but could act as hosts that enable a mutation to trigger a new type of variant. “Just a month ago, I believe it was just at 30% and now we’re at about 42-45% of our cases are attributed to that age range,” she said.

Hendrickson said that while children 12 and under are not yet eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines, she’s hopeful that approval could come as soon as October.

With face coverings recommended indoors for everyone whether or not they are vaccinated, Hendrickson said she sympathizes with people who thought the days of masking were over.

“I can imagine there’s a lot of frustration with people that have gotten vaccinated, that did their part to protect themselves, their families, their loved ones, and their communities, and now all of a sudden they’re being asked to mask again and to go through all these protocols,” she said, noting that although outdoor transmission is lessened, masks are still recommended in crowded areas or large gatherings.

Hendrickson said combating vaccine hesitancy is a major challenge, pointing to an array of misinformation for the drop-off in the number of people getting their shots.

“We hear a variety of reasons for why people are not getting vaccinated. Some people are saying they’re waiting for the (FDA) authorization to be fully approved,” said Hendrickson. “I laugh at that, because why? Right now, in my understanding, the only thing that’s really preventing it from being fully approved is about storage. It’s not the clinical side about safety; that data is there and we see in the general public with how many millions of people are vaccinated.

“This is not something that was created overnight. This has been studied for decades; it’s just now being used in this capacity to fight a novel virus after a huge global collaboration of scientists moved this forward. So the speed is because people had a singular problem and had a singular focus and were able to address it.”

Hendrickson said some people are not fully vaccinated because they haven’t gotten their second dose because they felt they had a bad reaction to the first shot. Others incorrectly assume they don’t need the vaccine if they’ve already had COVID-19.

“And it sounds like there’s actually also a group that just will not get the vaccine, and it’s a challenge that we face,” said Hendrickson. “But there’s a reason why we don’t have smallpox in our community and there’s a reason why we don’t have polio in our community. That’s because the vaccines work.”

Hendrickson said although not all of the county’s positive samples are genotyped, the Delta variant is becoming dominant.

“What we do know is that we do have Delta in our area, and it is one of the growing strands or variants that we see,” she said. “Of the samples that actually typed, that is our number one type in our area right now. So, it’s a safe assumption that the majority of all our cases are Delta.”

With school districts crafting their COVID-19 policies for the upcoming school year, Hendrickson urged administrators to adhere to the recommendations of universal indoor masking for all teachers and students.

“It’s important to get our kids back into school and getting them back through the educational system; it’s imperative,” she said. “So to help support that, we want to make sure we have healthy policies, and with Peoria County being at a substantial community transmission, that is what we strongly recommend at this time.”

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