Chatham County COVID-19 rates drop as vaccine rates rise – Savannah Morning News

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FDA committee backs Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for children 5-11

A federal advisory committee voted to authorize use of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine in children ages 5-11.

Associated Press, USA TODAY

Since the end of August and beginning of September, when COVID-19 hospitalizations peaked due to the delta variant, new cases of the virus have steadily declined. On Sep. 1, there were 298 hospitalizations due to COVID-19 at the three local hospitals. By Oct. 29, there were 21.

According to numbers compiled by the Georgia Department of Public Health, which includes specimens collected from a range of providers, including public health, private physicians, urgent care centers, and hospitals, the percentage of positive tests in Chatham County during the period between Oct. 1 to Oct. 28 have dropped from 9% to 2.6%.

Local doctors and public health officials attribute the decline to higher vaccination rates, especially among the elderly. As of Monday, 56% of Chatham County’s more than 295,000 residents had received at least one dose of the three available vaccines. 

The drastic drop in COVID-19 cases do not necessarily mean Chatham County has achieved herd immunity, cautioned Dr. Stephen Thacker, associate chief medical officer at Memorial Health University Medical Center.

“The answer is no,” Thacker said. “The answer is when you layer in the number of individuals who’ve been infected, you know where we’re getting closer. We still have a lot opportunity with vaccination of those, especially those who have not been infected yet during this pandemic, to really change that no to a yes, but we’re slowly getting there.”

More: Need a boost? Find out who’s eligible and where to go for a COVID-19 vaccine booster shot

Unlikely COVID spike during holidays

It would be difficult to tell if or when Chatham County does achieve herd immunity, said Dr. Lawton Davis, director for the Coastal Health District, mainly because Chatham County is currently incapable of running a seroprevalence survey, due to lack of resources. A seroprevalence survey requires the use of serology tests. To run a serology test, a hospital collects a blood sample from a patient. The serology test is then used to look for antibodies in the blood sample.

“But we’re following the same trend that we’re seeing with the delta variant in India, where it was first detected last… December, and they followed roughly a four, depending on where you draw the lines, for a four-and-a-half or five-month spike decline,” Davis said. “And ours has been a little quicker than that, but we are better at vaccinating than India. And we don’t have quite the population density that India has. So that’s kind of what I think is going on.”

Davis said he thinks it is less likely Chatham County will experience a major spike in COVID-19 cases after the holidays like it did last year, although he acknowledges that he has seen some “modeling programs that suggest we may see a surge this winter just because of cold weather and people being inside more, sharing community air.”

Grandparents gathering with grandchildren pose less harm than it did last year, Davis said, largely because most of the elderly population in Chatham County and nationwide, has gotten vaccinated since then.

More: Many Savannah-area parents of young children eager for approval of COVID-19 vaccine

Children ages five through 11 have not been approved for the vaccine yet, but could become eligible for the Pfizer vaccine by Nov. 2, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) meets. Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are still only authorized for use in adults, ages 18 and older. 

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration’s vaccine advisory committee voted in favor of an emergency authorization of the lower dosage Pfizer vaccine for kids, ages 5 through 11. Before it is fully-approved, though, the FDA needs to endorse it, the CDC advisory group needs to make a recommendation and the CDC director needs to approve it.

“Well, you know, I don’t have my crystal ball,” Davis said. “But let’s make a couple of assumptions here.

“Let’s assume that we don’t have a new variant pop up somewhere like the delta variant or another really bad actor like it. Let’s assume that the FDA and CDC go ahead and approve the pediatric doses of Pfizer. And then, assuming a reasonable portion of the parents who are vaccinated will have their younger children vaccinated.”

New treatment?

While doctors work to authorize vaccines, scientists are working to concoct new treatments. 

Emory University scientists created the first antiviral pill to treat COVID-19. In a press release from Oct. 1, Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, which are currently developing the drug after licensing it from Drug Innovation Ventures at Emory, wrote that it plans to apply for emergency use authorization (EUA) to the FDA “as soon as possible based on the findings.”

More: Health experts talk vaccines for children ages 5-11

Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics conducted a phase 3 study based on 775 patients and found the antiviral drug, a pill called Molnupiravir, “significantly reduce[d] the risk of hospitalization or death in patients with mild to moderate COVID-19.” The findings, according to the same press release, suggested that the drug reduced the risk of hospitalization or death by approximately 50% among adult patients.”

Molnupiravir requires patients take four pills twice a day for five days.

“There’s still a lot of questions in my mind,” Thacker said of the possible treatment. “If you scale, what does that number truly look like? But it’s certainly an exciting potential.”

Cautious moving forward

Meanwhile, Davis said he wants to remind people of mid-spring, when “people were becoming a little looser with their personal mitigation strategies like wearing masks and washing hands and social distancing.”

“And then, bam, the delta variant hit us,” Davis said. “So while our trends are currently favorable, I would encourage people not to completely abandon all of their common sense as far as what they can do to protect themselves from their personal mitigation practices. And still, you know, be careful. I don’t think this thing is completely over yet.”

Although he doesn’t believe a holiday spike is forthcoming, Davis said, “It would help much more significantly if we had more people vaccinated.”

Drew Favakeh is the public safety and public health reporter for Savannah Morning News. You can reach him at