Nearly two years into the pandemic, most people are eager to move on from the days of mask wearing and vaccine appointments, but COVID-19 still is a central topic, especially as we move into the holiday season.
On Sept. 13, the Vanderburgh County Board of Health released a statement about the state of COVID-19 in the county, and on Oct. 25, vaccine updates were posted to the Vanderburgh County Health Department’s Facebook page. Evansville Living recently spoke with Health Department Administrator Joe Gries about everything you need to know as activities move indoors and families gather for the holidays.
Gries joined the health department in 2016 and works closely with Health Officer Robert K. Spear, M.D, the Board of Health, and department staff to improve public health services across the county.
What is the state of COVID-19 in Vanderburgh County since the September updates?
In Vanderburgh County and the city of Evansville, the numbers (of positive cases) over the last several weeks have been improving and continue to improve. The numbers have dropped dramatically. And since the Board of Health sent the press release out (in September) — and talked about asking people to get vaccinated, to wear masks, things of that nature — we were pretty much at the peak of the Delta variant surge that has waned over the last several weeks, and the numbers look a lot better.
How should people balance celebrating the holidays and maintaining safe COVID-19 protocols?
Obviously, people are going to be around family and friends during the holidays. There’s really no reason not to; that’s something that everybody, I think, needs. It’s part of what we do here in our community, in this country, is we celebrate the holidays with family, with friends. But I would say the biggest thing is if you’re feeling ill, try not to be around people. Whether it be a cold, or maybe you even have allergy symptoms, all these types of things — the flu, COVID —have similar types of symptoms.
Get tested to see if you do have COVID, but if you’re sick, try to stay away from folks. And that’s going to be the biggest key. Then whatever you have, whether it’s cold or flu or COVID, you’re not going to be spreading that. People can wear masks to protect themselves as well and protect people around them and, obviously, washing your hands frequently.
If you have the opportunity to meet outside, well-ventilated areas are better. We know that those types of things can reduce the risk when we do get together with family and friends. With the numbers continuing to improve here over the last several weeks — and we hope that continues into the holiday season — hopefully this isn’t too much of an issue and won’t be a situation where numbers would start to climb again.
If someone displays COVID-19 symptoms during or after the holidays, how can they get tested in Vanderburgh County?
The health department actually doesn’t do testing as far as COVID is concerned. The hospitals are still testing, both Deaconess Health System and Ascension St. Vincent. You can get on their websites and set up an appointment. It’s limited timing, so it is a better idea to set an appointment (than try to walk in).
You also can go to some local pharmacies to be tested. I believe, for the most part, they have the rapid test where it’s more of a screening.
Obviously, people who are vaccinated have some protection, people who have had (COVID-19) in the past have some protection, but we do know that both groups can still contract the virus. So again, doing everything you can to protect yourself, getting vaccinated, and trying to stay home when you’re not feeling well or when you have symptoms, is going to be a key as we get into the winter months.
A majority of recent national COVID-19 conversation has been focused on booster shots of the vaccine. While the CDC only recently declared the Pfizer vaccine safe for children ages 5-11, many adults in Vanderburgh County are already eligible for boosters. What is the status of boosters in Evansville?
We do have the booster shot: We have the Moderna version and the Pfizer version. We do not have Johnson & Johnson; Johnson & Johnson is limited in where you can receive that right now. But we do have the other two vaccines on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We have clinics here at the health department. We are starting to book those in advance.
We do recommend that people make an appointment. They can call our office, or they can go onto our website and contact us to make an appointment. That’s going to be the easiest way, because you’re going to be able to know what time your appointment is, and when you show up, we’re going to be able to get you in and out pretty quickly.
Pfizer and Moderna (boosters are intended for) if you’re 65 years old and older, or if you’re 18 years to 65 years old and you have higher risks. So, it’s (determined by) where you work, where you live. If you have health issues that put you at higher risk for contracting and having more severe outcomes from COVID, those are the people who are eligible for the boosters.
There has been guidance that we’ve received that if you’ve received the Johnson & Johnson (vaccine), you can receive the Pfizer or Moderna booster as long as you’re two months past receiving the Johnson & Johnson shot.
If you are immuno-compromised, you can receive a third shot, which is different from the booster. If you are immuno-compromised, you can receive a third shot of Pfizer and be able to increase your immune response to COVID.
What is the difference between a booster shot and a third dose of vaccine?
I think it actually comes down to just how they define it. The people who are immuno-compromised may have issues with their immune system anyway, so that (third shot) definition is basically we’re trying to increase their immune response to COVID, whereas a booster shot is the person has some immunity, but maybe it has waned, or it has lessened over time.
You have to be six months after the initial two-dose series of your Pfizer or Moderna shots to receive that booster. Again, both are trying to increase the immune response in everybody.