Health department educator talks COVID hospitalizations, vaccine, masks

Published 9:38 am Thursday, December 16, 2021

DOWAGIAC — As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations rise across the state, Cass County remains the least vaccinated county in Michigan – and one local health official is on a mission to educate the public.

Holly Young, health educator at Van Buren/Cass District Health Department, spoke Monday at the Cass County Council on Aging, 227 S. Front St., about the stigma of mask-wearing, local child vaccination rates and how the high hospitalization rate effects local senior citizens, among other topics.

According to Young, the Bronson Hospital network has 98 percent of its beds filled with COVID-19 patients. Statewide, 84 percent of hospital beds are filled, including 20 hospitals at 97 percent or more capacity as of Dec. 13, according to the Michigan Health and Hospital Association.

Ascension Borgess-Lee Hospital in Dowagiac has three COVID-19 cases as of Dec. 13, and just 28 percent of beds filled. Young said the larger trends are concerning, especially for senior citizens with chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

“The biggest concern that we have is hospital capacity related to older adults,” Young said. “Chronic conditions do not go away.”

According to data provided by the Cass/Van Buren Health Department, six out of 10 Americans live with at least one chronic disease, and more than 95 percent of Michigan adults report behaviors such as smoking, alcohol use and unhealthy diet, which can lead to chronic conditions.

Young said being open with communication and seeing what you can do at home are more important with hospital beds near capacity in much of the state. She added getting proper exercise, nutrition and keeping up with mental health is as important as any treatment in health care.

“Not saying that you shouldn’t go to a hospital when you’re sick,” Young said. “But prevention, rather than intervention.”

According to the Michigan COVID-19 Dashboard, more than 6 million residents, or 62.4 percent of the population, have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine. In Cass County, 41.2 percent of residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine, with 36.53 percent fully vaccinated.

According to Young, 600 local children under 16 years old have received the vaccine, while roughly nine percent of students are getting sick with COVID-19 on a weekly basis.

“What we are seeing is children are getting vaccinated, but it’s only when they have their annual wellness checkups,” Young said. “We understand that there’s some hesitancy from parents not wanting to get the vaccine from school, so we’re not trying to be too pushy with that. … We’re trying to make it as easy as possible for children and their parents to get vaccinated.”

Young also explained that while getting the COVID-19 virus causes individuals to produce antibodies and future immunity for a period of time, getting the vaccine is a better option.

“If you’ve had the virus and you were not vaccinated, you will have the antibodies, which will give you natural immunity for about 90 days,” Young said. “But those antibodies disappear, so that’s why we’re worried you can get it again. … With the vaccine, you won’t have antibodies, but your white blood cells. It’s like having a memory card. It will last a lot longer than natural immunity. Your body will remember ‘this is what I need to fight.’”

Young said the department has been limited in what they have been able to do in schools to educate the children about mask-wearing and vaccines due to restrictions.

“We definitely need more education in schools,” she said. “What we’re finding is even if a parent would like their kids masking in school, their children take it off as soon as they get to school because their parents aren’t wearing it, the teachers aren’t wearing it.”

The health department has reached out to schools, but Young said health department staff members receive a lot of pushback from parents and schools who do not want to “ruffle any feathers.” She added that one of the reasons cases are so high is due to school policies not requiring masks and quarantining being optional.

“It’s COVID fatigue,” she said. “This is going on two years of COVID-19. People don’t want to do these things anymore. I understand. I know it’s hard for people, but we’re just trying to push it as much as possible because this isn’t going away. It’s something that we need to do interventions on continuously.”