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'Be alert, not alarmed' -- one local public health official says regarding summer uptick in COVID-19 cases

A computer rendering of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Radoslav Zilinsky
/
Getty Images
A computer rendering of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

COVID cases are expected to go up during the fall, but experts say they won’t be anywhere near the rate at the height of the pandemic.

“It's important for the community not to panic, but to be aware and mindful and do what they can do,” said Dr. Sandra Martell, the public health administrator for the Winnebago County Public Health Department.

One action Martell recommends the public take is to include a home COVID test in their first aid kit, alongside the band aids and thermometer.

She said testing is key to differentiating symptoms from allergies or the seasonal flu.

“If you begin to develop symptoms, it is important for you to test, isolate,” Martell said.

“If you're sick, stay home so that you don't transmit to others.”

She said in the latest variant of COVID, called BA.2.86 or “Pirola,” most people are only experiencing minor symptoms.

For individuals who have experienced COVID before or are previously vaccinated “your immune system has seen somewhat of these variants before and is able to mount a little bit more of a defense,” she said.

She said symptoms are like other COVID variations such as cough, tiredness, running a fever, sneezing, and sore throat.

For those who are susceptible to developing severe symptoms, the Winnebago County health department does offer Paxlovid, the oral medicine used to treat COVID.

And she warns that the health department doesn’t accept requests for medicine in order for folks to stockpile at home.

Instead, the medicine is for individuals who have tested positive for COVID and are most vulnerable to being hospitalized. Also, the Winnebago County Health Department’s supply is for those who have a harder time getting it through a provider.

“So, immunocompromised individuals, people who have underlying health conditions, it's important for them to seek treatment as soon as possible if they test positive and not wait for symptoms to progress such that they need emergency care.”

The sign-up and medical screening is available in multiple languages on the health department’s website. Staff are also available to help folks navigate the online screening.

Martell recommends folks check with their local public health department to see what services are available to them.

The next vaccine

Martell says the department is gearing up to take part in what’s called a “bridge program” to distribute the next available COVID vaccine.

According to the CDC, the government is not providing free vaccines as it did during the pandemic. For a limited time, free vaccines may be available through local public health departments.

“And that is targeting the uninsured and underinsured who would not have a means of getting the vaccine or their insurance plans do not cover vaccine to be able to provide that,” she said.

New COVID-19 hospitalization rates

Nearly all of the state except for several counties in southern Illinois is colored green on the CDC map of new COVID-19 hospitalizations. This signifies the lowest rate.

Thus, in Winnebago County, at the start of the month, there were about 18 additional individuals who were hospitalized due to COVID.

Martell said even with numbers low, it’s important to be vigilant.

One sector of the community most at risk is older adults living in nursing homes.

“So, we're starting to see an uptick in outbreaks in long term care facilities among staff and residents, again, that those are highly vulnerable individuals,” she said.

She said the department hasn’t seen it yet, but there may be a flare-up of cases in schools too.

For Martell, she wants the public to recognize that COVID has not gone away.

“It still can have a really significant impact on those who are immunocompromised, those who have underlying health conditions,” she said.

“And we really need to do the best we can to stay home when we're sick, recognize, test, and take care of it to ensure that we don't expose others.”

So, while wearing masks and taking other preventative measures may not be very popular, she said they’re still important in some circumstances to protect those around us.

A Chicago native, Maria earned a Master's Degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield . Maria is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America. RFA is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. It is an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit journalism organization. Un residente nativo de Chicago, Maria se graduó de University of Illinois Springfield con una licenciatura superior en periodismo de gobierno.