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August 2, 2021

Novant doctor encourages vaccinations, says average hospitalization age now 47

SALISBURY — Everyone will eventually have antibodies to COVID-19, but it’s much safer to receive them through a vaccine than becoming sick, says David Priest, chief safety, quality and epidemiology officer for Novant Health.

“That’s really the fork in the road in terms of your choices in terms of how you get COVID antibodies,” Priest said during a briefing with reporters. “We don’t want to see tragedy. We don’t want to have situations where people don’t decide to get vaccinated until something serious happens to them or someone they love.”

He said people admitted to hospitals with COVID-19 are almost universally unvaccinated — a fact echoed by Atrium Health, which says about 99% of patients admitted to its facilities are unvaccinated. The Rowan County Health Department says unvaccinated people represent all of the recent several COVID-19 deaths among local residents.

The average age of patients admitted into Novant Health hospitals, which includes Rowan Medical Center, is 47. That’s a decrease from 61 in previous months during the pandemic. The younger age is helpful for mortality rates, resulting in a decrease from 15% to about 4%, Priest said. About 15% of people diagnosed with COVID-19 are placed on ventilators, Priest said.

“So, if someone is thinking to themselves, ‘I’m young and I’m in good health. I’ll probably be fine,’ none of those things make you immune to COVID, particularly the Delta variant, which is more contagious and is putting younger people in the hospital, as we’ve found in our system,” Priest said.

The Delta variant of COVID-19 was first identified in India in December. Now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 48% of COVID-19 cases are the Delta variant in North Carolina’s region, which includes seven other states in the Southeast.

Priest said people infected with COVID-19 still have some immunity when new variants arise, but that protection isn’t as predictable or as vigorous as it is from vaccination.

“We’re still encouraging individuals who had COVID to be vaccinated,” he said.

In Rowan County, about 35.3% of people and 41.1% of people 12 and older are vaccinated with at least one dose. For full vaccinations, the numbers are 30.8% and 35.8%, respectively.

An update on new COVID-19 cases wasn’t available Tuesday afternoon because of a technical issue experienced by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

Priest answered a number of other questions related to COVID-19 during the briefing:

• He said parents should generally be prepared for their children to wear masks in schools in the coming year regardless of their vaccination status. But two realities could emerge depending on whether masks are required.

Communities with high vaccination rates among adults and mask-wearing rules still in place are less likely to see COVID-19 outbreaks, he said. The opposite is likely in communities with low vaccination rates and no mask-wearing rules.

“A county where 30% of adults are vaccinated and the kids aren’t masking, you’re not going to get through the school year without outbreaks of COVID in the school system. It just isn’t going to happen, particularly a very contagious variant,” he said.

Rowan-Salisbury Schools plans to make masks optional for the coming year.

• People can be infected with COVID-19 if they are vaccinated, but cases are generally “quite mild” in people who have received the shot, Priest said.

“It can happen. Vaccines are not perfect and the vaccines likely aren’t as protective for the Delta variant for regular, routine cases of COVID, but they remain highly effective at preventing hospitalization and death,” he said. “So, we will see those. It doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be vaccinated.”

• It’s “highly unlikely” for people who have been vaccinated to spread COVID-19 to unvaccinated people. It is possible, but it’s rare, Priest said.

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