By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
One Feather Staff
January 2022 has seen the highest number of new COVID-19 cases reported in the Cherokee community out of any month since the pandemic began. And, the month isn’t over yet.
The EBCI (Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians) Joint Information Center (JIC) is reporting 457 new cases as of Wednesday, Jan. 19. The next highest month has been August 2021 which saw 349 cases.
“The current surge brought on by the Omicron variant is causing the highest number of infections since the state of the pandemic,” said Dr. Richard A. Bunio, Cherokee Indian Hospital executive clinical director. “It is highly contagious and people are understandably tired of wearing masks and avoiding higher risk settings like in-person dining. This variant causes fewer serious illness and those who are vaccinated tend to do very well at home recovering over five to 10 days. However, the sheer number of people infected means even the small number that get really sick are filling all local hospitals beyond the breaking point.”
According to the EBCI JIC, as of Jan. 19, a total of 56 percent of the EBCI population is fully vaccinated compared to 59 percent of the State of North Carolina and 63 percent nationwide.
Vickie Bradley, EBCI Secretary of Public Health and Human Services, said, “COVID continues to be a challenge, not just for our community, but for everyone. The Omicron variant has significantly increased the challenges because of the uptick in cases. While those infected with Omicron tend to have milder symptoms, the sheer number of cases – more now than previously in the pandemic, means that there are more sick people which affects everything from the workforce to hospitalizations.”
She continued, “Everyone is discouraged by the recurrent wave of cases and it’s sad to see how disruptive this virus can continue to be, even two years into the pandemic. It is more disheartening to know that the degree of preventive ability is out there with vaccinations being available and a large percentage of the population not participating in taking the vaccine. I continue to advocate and want to make a plea once again to our community to get vaccinated, get your children vaccinated and encourage friends and family to do the same. This is still the single most important thing we can do to help decrease the burden of disease on our community.”
In speaking about the recent surge, Dr. Bunio noted, “It is estimated that 95 percent of recent cases are Omicron. Testing to determine which variant a person has is time-consuming and not readily available. Right now, if you have COVID, you probably have Omicron.”
Dr. Bunio said the numbers reported could be lower due to the recent advent of home-testing. “We do ask people who test positive on a home test to call PHHS so that can be tracked, but some may choose not to do so. We are also telling people that if they are sick, but only mildly so, it is acceptable not to get tested at all but assume they have COVID and stay home for the new five-day isolation period followed by five days of mask-wearing. This will also reduce our estimate of cases but was necessary because we could not keep up with the demand for tests.”
He went on to state of Omicron. “Most models predict we will hit our peak somewhere around the middle of February. After the peak number of cases is expected to drop off very quickly. Unfortunately, the peak in cases does not mean we will have the same reduction in hospitalizations right away since that usually takes another two to four weeks to go down.”
Dr. Bunio addressed the CDC’s recent recommendation for schools to “cancel or put on hold” certain “high risk activities” such as football and wrestling. “All large group settings and some sports activities are higher risk by their very nature. Anything that involves close contact for more than 15 minutes and no mask-wearing risks exposure of multiple athletes or fans if someone there is contagious at the time of the activity. I feel the schools are doing a great job staying in close contact with public health experts and making their best decisions weekly as they face the challenge of keeping children in school and as safe as possible.”