San Joaquin County seems to be maintaining its plateau but has taken a slight dip in the number of positive COVID-19 cases reported.

Until this week, the county has been fluctuating between 15-to-16 cases per 100,000 per day for the bulk of September and October, even reaching as high as 29 cases per 100,000 per day on Sept. 10.

According to the state dashboard, which updates its numbers daily, the county is currently at 13.7 cases per 100,000 per day, with about 500 new cases and 25 deaths reported in the past week as of Thursday. According to a twice-weekly report from San Joaquin County Public Health Services, Tracy has had at least 70 new cases in the past week and one new death. Throughout the county, there are 105 patients hospitalized with COVID-19, with 32 of those patients in the ICU.

“I'm feeling optimistic that our numbers have started to go down again. But I'm not quite comfortable with where we're at. I would like to see them go down much further,” said County Public Health Officer Dr. Maggie Park in an interview with the Tracy Press. “Happy to report that if you look at the CDC’s map of community transmission, our county is in the orange, which is great news. If you were to look at that, you would see that the state's back in the red…But still, we're doing okay, considering the fact that all of our neighbors are still red, here in the San Joaquin Valley. So, we're orange. And I feel really good about that.”

Park said that while she is feeling optimistic about numbers starting to decline, she’d still like to see the county’s numbers decline further and be closer to how the numbers were in mid-June, when the 7-day average hovered between 3-to-4 cases per 100,000 per day and less than 50 people were hospitalized at any given time.

“And another reason why I'm not comfortable is that, as I said, our neighbors in the valley are still in the red. And the state as a whole is starting to see a rise in its case rates, and it's testing positivity,” said Park. “So, although we seem to have stabilized here in San Joaquin County, I'm looking at what's happening in the state as a whole and feeling a little bit concerned that we might start to see that we're not able to go down further and that we're going to start to follow some trends that are happening in other parts of the state.”

The Delta variant is still the main wild card and has been the dominating strain for the COVID-19 virus since June. Park said close to 100% of COVID-19 cases in San Joaquin County are of the Delta variant. With the Delta variant still being the showrunner, Park encourages residents to remain vigilant in its COVID-19 mitigation practices.

“I feel like I'm a broken record. And I know people are getting tired of hearing it. But the public just has to keep doing what it's been doing. We just cannot let our guard down. We're not done with this yet. So it's still all about masking indoors and in crowded situations, even outdoors, washing our hands and just staying vigilant,” said Park. “There's nothing magical the public can do except to do what they've been doing all along…I think that people want to be part of the solution. I think they have a realistic view of COVID and understand the risks, and they want to do the best to protect their families and the community. So, I do feel that for the most part, people are really heeding the guidance, and being as careful as they can be, and we so appreciate that at public health.”

Mitigation efforts, along with being fully vaccinated are two of the biggest factors to helping the number of case rates reduce, according to Park.

Currently San Joaquin County Public Health Services is focusing its outreach on getting the right information out about COVID-19 vaccines, including their efficacy, safety concerns and information about boosters. The agency is also continuing its efforts for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing.

“We're still working very hard to address concerns about the safety of the vaccines. So that is probably the biggest concern that people have. And in addition to that, there's a sense that some people have that the vaccines aren't necessary. Perhaps they're not anti-vaxxers, per se, but they don't think that the youth quite need it, or for some reason, they themselves don't fall into a category where the vaccine’s important,” said Park. “So, some of it is about the necessity of the vaccine, and some of the concerns about the safety of the vaccine. But those are the biggest two things we're trying to address.”

In San Joaquin County, about 57.6% of eligible residents are fully vaccinated, with 76.1% of Tracy residents fully vaccinated. The percentage has slightly decreased due to the number of eligible residents expanding with youth ages 5 to 11 now also being eligible for the vaccine. Kids 5-to-11 years old make up about 10% of San Joaquin County residents according to Park.

Park, along with California Department of Public Health Deputy Director Dr. Rohan Radhakrishna, weighed in on the common questions and concerns raised by the public regarding COVID-19, masking and vaccinations.

Radhakrishna, said that, while California in general seems to be doing much better in its COVID-19 response, compared to the rest of the U.S. that it is important for residents to not let their guard down, especially with winter holidays approaching and more indoor gathering commencing.

“Now is the time to double down on our progress rather than let our guard down. So, we are doing well compared to the rest of the nation. But we don't take that for granted,” said Radhakrishna. “And we want to see in this next phase of the winter holidays, a family and household approach where everyone eligible is getting vaccinated.

“So first, we just want to normalize that having questions and concerns is okay. It means you're concerned about your body, and you want the best for your family…No matter what your question, concern or hesitancy talk to a trusted source, not just the CDC, or the California Department of Public Health or your local health department. Talk to your personal medical provider. They know you, your values, your body, and can really customize that conversation. So rather than getting misinformation, or disinformation, or social media information, or hearsay, hearing it directly from someone who knows you and you trust is the best way to get your information.”

Q & A with Dr. Rohan Radhakrishna and Dr. Maggie Park

Q: Can you address concerns about children receiving the COVID-19 vaccine?

Radhakrishna: Particularly with children, there has been some concerns about the impact on the heart, inflammation of the heart muscle, which is called myocarditis. So, the good news is in the 5-to-11-year-old clinical trials, although it was 4500 kids enrolled in those trials, there were zero cases of it. And while it has been shown in teenagers, it is rare. It is short lived, and it is mild, and most importantly, COVID-19 disease causes more and worse myocarditis and impacts on the heart. So, if you had to choose between taking the risk of getting COVID, versus side effects from the vaccine, COVID is much more dangerous and deadly for the heart, including for our youth.

Q: What about concerns about the COVID-19 vaccine being developed too quickly?

Radhakrishna: It's been an unprecedented historic investment in science to get us a safe and effective vaccine for this pandemic, compared to others when there wasn't as much of a time pressure. So, was it fast and miraculous? Yes. Was it rushed? No, the same multi-step safety and efficacy hurdles were jumped at the federal level, at the regional level, and at the state level going through multiple levels of review...And so, we go through the same rigorous stepwise process as we have with others.

Oftentimes, people talk about the Pfizer in the Moderna, as a new technology and something that they think may need more time. What people don't realize is researchers have been studying and using mRNA vaccines for decades, not just for months. And it has been particularly helpful because it's faster to develop the products needed for the vaccine using that technology, which has allowed us to scale up in this unprecedented fashion. So, it still undergoes the same rigorous safety and effectiveness standards as others, the technology just allows for a faster scale up kind of using the ingredients in the recipe to make more of it faster in our laboratories.

Q: Please explain the rationale for the strict COVID-19 protocols in school settings.

Radhakrishna: California has 12% of the student body K through 12. In the United States, but less than 1% of all school closures. That is a proud fact that tells us what we're doing is working to keep kids safe and in school. Masking is a key part of that we actually have seven layers of defense in our schools. Everything from contact tracing, to testing, to ventilation, to masking – and vaccines for kids is the new seventh layer of defense that we're adding. But even without it, with masking in place, we were able to safely keep kids in school better than other states. So masking is an essential component of our Safe Schools for all campaign. It's not going to end the pandemic, but it will keep kids safe in school and their family members as well.

Q: Who is eligible for a booster?

Park: Unfortunately, the way that the boosters were approved, there was so much language about who's eligible, who should get one or who may get one, that people don't realize that really, anyone over the age of 18 can get a booster shot, as long as it's been six months from their second Pfizer or Moderna, or two months since their Johnson and Johnson. And I highly encourage people to do so.

There's some research that was presented when the FDA and the CDC looked at boosters that led people to believe that it might be better to mix…I would say for J&J, the difference between getting a second J&J or getting an mRNA, those differences were greater. The benefit seems to be greater.

Q: What treatments are authorized and proven effective for COVID-19?

Park: Wouldn't it be so nice if it was as easy as that to get rid of COVID once you had an infection? Unfortunately, it's not that easy. But we do have some real antiviral treatments on the horizon, and we just need to be patient and hope that they really are as useful as the drug companies taught them to be...The monoclonal antibodies are real treatments that can really help. And so, if anyone were to become COVID positive and qualified, I would highly recommend treatment with the monoclonal antibodies. These are combination antibody treatments that have been found to be effective against the current Delta variant that is, you know, really rampant throughout the nation…The much better strategy is to get vaccinated and not get COVID in the first place, if you can help it.

Q: How is 2022 going to look for us?

Park: I'm certainly optimistic that things will get better in 2022. But I don't think that it's going to happen overnight. Realistically, looking at some of the mandates we have, such as the indoor masking mandate at schools, I don't foresee this going away for the rest of the academic year. I could be wrong. But we have so much evidence that that practice is protective. So, I don't foresee CDPH loosening up that particular restriction at this time…So if we could actually get those kids vaccinated, that could get us much closer to this concept of herd immunity, because now we've got more people vaccinated. And by getting the bulk of our community vaccinated, our transmission rates should go down. So, if we're successful with that, I could see I could see 2022 looking better.

• Contact Brianna Guillory at bguillory@tracypress.com to 209-830-4229.

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