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Health officials hold virtual forum, answer questions

 

Plumas County Public Health held its long-awaited forum on COVID-19 virtually the evening of April 7.

The event, hosted by Public Information Officer Zach Gately, featured Public Health Officer Dr. Mark Satterfield, Public Health Director Dr. Dana Loomis, Dr. Erin Barnes and Kevin Bean representing Plumas Unified School District. The first 45 minutes were devoted to answering pre-submitted questions, while the remaining 15 minutes were reserved for an online Q&A; however, only a couple of individuals participated.

Gately explained that the forum was being held virtually — not because of fear of being exposed to COVID — but rather so that it could be “an open platform for the entire county.”

He also told the listening audience that the goal of the forum was to stay away from a theoretical discussion, but rather to ask questions about the virus as it pertains to Plumas County. Remarks should be limited to questions, rather than statements about the virus.

One of the first questions focused on why the virus was being considered a pandemic and why has the response to it changed.

Public Health Director Dana Loomis said, “One of the ways we know we are in a pandemic is because we can count deaths” and presented a slide which showed an increase in deaths with the advent of COVID.  He said the numbers worldwide clearly indicated a pandemic.

As for why the response to the virus changes, Loomis explained that when it first appeared, “no one had seen it before and we didn’t know how to treat people.” Additionally, viruses are always changing, and the science evolves as well.

“We have learned a lot over time,” Loomis said, and he discussed the early months of the virus when a lot of attention was focused on cleaning surfaces, when it turned out that wasn’t the main issue.

Also, as the months progress, the population changes as more people gain immunity from either having had the infection or by acquiring immunity from the vaccine.

The panel was also asked about what individuals could do to be prepared.

“First vaccinate,” said Dr. Mark Satterfield, noting that vaccines have demonstrated to be safe and keep people out of the hospitals.

As for the vaccines, is a second booster shot necessary?

Dr. Satterfield said that the second booster dose is a little more controversial. He said that those in high risk groups or those embarking on high risk activities such as travel to an area where the virus is circulating, might want to consider it. (The second booster has been approved for those over 50 or those with underlying health issues.) “I really respect people’s rights to make those decisions,” he said.

Another question: Why are people who are vaccinated still getting COVID?

Dr. Barnes said, “Yes, you can still get Covid,” but from her work in the clinics as well as in the hospital, “We are not seeing people who are vaccinated getting very sick.” She added that “99 percent of those we have cared for have been unvaccinated.”

As for availability, vaccines and boosters can be found at the local pharmacies, the  public health clinic, and the hospitals. Barnes said she recommends the pharmacies because of the ease of receiving vaccines at those outlets.

Still on the topic of vaccines, what about children? How important is it for children to be vaccinated?

Dr. Satterfield said that this is “less clearcut than with other vaccines” such as for the measles, “but on the other hand there are long term symptoms” that are associated with COVID.” He also discussed the importance of vaccinating children to help stop the transmission of the virus in the general public.

Dr. Erin Barnes said that she agreed with it from the transmission standpoint, but in general “we are not seeing kids have severe disease.” She said she has had many conversations with parents about the issue, and said it’s a decision each family can weigh. However, she does advise the vaccine for teenagers who can become more ill.

Also on the subject of youth, there were questions about COVID in the schools and what is being done to stop the spread.

“We continue to follow all of the guidance,” said Kevin Bean, and outlined the masking, distancing and wiping of surfaces that had been done. “We had pretty significant surges this year,” he said, but said that was alleviated with on-campus testing. “That became a powerful tool for us,” he added. It allows the schools to quickly identify cases and take action. The district still has a large quantity of tests available. “Starting to see few additional cases popping up,” he said, “but hopefully we keep it tamped down.”

All of the panelists were very supportive of the tests performed at school and at-home tests. “The home tests are really powerful,” Loomis said, because they let the responsibility shift from the government to the individual.

Also for the schools, Bean said the mask mandate has been lifted, but some students and staff still wear a mask, especially if they have been exposed to the virus. As for a vaccine mandate to attend school, that is still being worked on in the state legislature. “We are concerned about covid, but also people not being in school,” Bean said.

Another question arose about the virus becoming more of a flu-like disease.

“It is widely believed that the virus is getting less and less virulent,” Satterfield said, however he added that viruses mutate, and the next mutation could be worse. “When things become endemic – it might become milder – but we are not there yet,” he said.

Loomis said, “We hear a lot about COVID becoming endemic, but that doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous.” He mentioned malaria as an example. “It’s endemic, but it still kills 1 million per year.”  Endemic means it’s a little more predictable, he explained, such as the annual flu that moves in cycles – from southern to northern hemisphere. “Covid is still not predictable,” he said.

What about treatments?

“Treatments are highly effective,” Satterfield said, though emphasized that it’s important that they be initiated within five days of the first symptom. That means testing right away and seeing a provider to prescribe the meds. He said treatment reduces hospitalization or death by over 90 percent.

When it was time for the public to ask questions online, there was silence for a while. Then one woman asked about getting a second booster and thinking it might be wise to wait until Fall when people moved back indoors.

“I think that’s a good idea,” said Dr. Barnes, and Satterfield agreed.

Another questioner asked why is everyone getting sick even if they have the vaccine and asked if adverse effects from the vaccine were reported.

Barnes said that they have not seen any long-term effects from people receiving the vaccine and that they would be reported if known. It’s normal for individuals to be sick for a day or two, she explained, but that’s a good sign that the virus is working and the body is building immunities.

Satterfield emphasized that people can still become sick even after having the vaccine, but they are far less likely to suffer severe illness.

At the conclusion of the forum, Gately said a video recording would be posted (details when that becomes available), and that more forums would be held as needed.

 

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