As Lancaster County experiences substantial viral spread and heads into another wave of COVID-19 infections, local infectious disease experts LNP | LancasterOnline spoke to said this upsurge was avoidable.
“This fifth wave is indeed a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” said Dr. Joseph Kontra, chief of infectious diseases at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Hospital.
Kontra added, “There’s not a reason to panic, but I think people should be smart.”
With the delta variant accounting for the majority of new infections, here’s what you need to know to protect yourself, your family and your community:
I’m unvaccinated, what does the substantial spread designation mean for me?
In short, you’re at a greater risk of contracting a COVID-19 infection. The delta variant is twice as contagious as the original virus that emerged last year.
“I strongly believe if we were getting more people vaccinated this wouldn’t be happening,” said Dr. John Goldman, an infectious disease specialist at UPMC in Central Pennsylvania. “You are less likely to be infected if you’re vaccinated.”
In Lancaster County, roughly 54% of the population 12 and older are vaccinated.
Goldman added, “The people who are getting sick are the unvaccinated.”
How contagious is the Delta variant?
Infection control experts compare the transmissibility of COVID-19 to chickenpox, an extremely infectious disease. According to the CDC, the varicella zoster virus, which causes chickenpox, can infect up to 90% of the people close to one contagious person.
“Anyone waiting for one final reason to get vaccinated now have it with the delta variant,” Kontra said.
I’m vaccinated, should I be masking indoors?
Yes, now that Lancaster County has a substantial level of community transmission, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends masking indoors.
“We need to get COVID under control,” said Dr. Mark Goedecker, vice president and regional medical director for WellSpan Health’s central region.
How concerned should I be about children under 12, who cannot be vaccinated, transmitting the virus to older relatives or those with a weakened immune system? And what steps should I take to keep everyone safe?
Short of a statewide or national mandate, it all comes down to risk tolerance.
“It’s complicated,” Goedecker said.
Breakthrough cases are rare. A recent breakout in a Massachusetts beach community, though, appears to show vaccinated individuals can acquire and transmit the virus.
If concerned about transmitting the virus, individuals should mask, practice social distancing and follow good hand hygiene.
“There are still a lot of people out there that are at risk,” Goedecker said.
Pennsylvania has not mandated masking or other mitigation measures. So, why are some businesses requiring masks?
Masks are back on — regardless of vaccination status — for employees in a string of businesses including Kohl’s, McDonald’s, Target and Home Depot.
Home Depot and McDonald’s also want customers to don a mask, although only in high transmission areas if at the Golden Arches.
The delta surge.
Businesses and workplaces have always had the option of requiring masks and other COVID mitigation strategies of customers and employees. Now many are returning to what they’ve seen work.
“We know that masking is very effective,” Goedecker said. “We’re also seeing breakthrough cases with the delta variant.”
Goedecker added, “Vaccination is still the number one way we have of preventing severe disease.”
Noting that the CDC recommendation regarding indoor masking is not a mandate, Goedecker said local and county officials could also require masks and other mitigation efforts, in the interest of the public health.
Is it too late to get a COVID-19 vaccine?
If you have a COVID-19 infection, you cannot get the vaccine until after the virus has run its course.
Otherwise, if you have not been vaccinated, health experts urge you to do so as soon as possible.
“With a recent increase in COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania and the increased presence of the Delta variant across the U.S., we are urging all unvaccinated Pennsylvanians who are eligible to receive the vaccine to get one as soon as possible,” Mark O’Neill, a state health department spokesman, said in an email to LNP.
How do I make an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine?
Patients can call their physician’s office or use these resources:
Lancaster General Hospital — 717-588-1165 or https://www.lancastergeneralhealth.org/covid-19-information/covid-19-vaccines
UPMC — 844-UPMCVAC (844-876-2822) or UPMC.com
WellSpan — 855-851-3641