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Roanoke health director on possible booster shots, recent rise of COVID-19 in youths

Roanoke health director on possible booster shots, recent rise of COVID-19 in youths

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In her media address this week, Roanoke City and Alleghany Health District director Dr. Cynthia Morrow offered concerning details about the age ranges of those newly infected with COVID-19, and also voiced the prospect that booster shots could be moving closer to approval for the general public.

Over the past seven days, the Roanoke and Alleghany regions together have reported 957 documented cases of the virus, against 808 last week and 715 at the end of last month.

Of this week’s total, approximately 25% — roughly 240 — involve children under the age of 18, and nearly half of the new cases are people below age 34.

On Aug. 31, when 715 new cases were reported, only 20% of that figure involved victims younger than 18.

“It doesn’t surprise us,” Morrow said Tuesday of the increase, adding that children under 12 still are not able to receive the vaccine, and younger people who are eligible tend to have lower vaccination rates.

“If you’re able to get vaccinated, even if you’re young, you should get vaccinated,” she cautioned.

In interpreting those figures, Morrow said contact tracing indicates younger people seem more likely to get infected in household or community settings, rather than in the classroom.

“When there’s this much disease, we may see some transmission in schools, but it does not appear that that’s the major source,” she said. “I think that speaks to the power of having physical distancing and masking in place. We know that in school, where these layered mitigation strategies are in place, we’re better able to protect people. But once they go outside of school and they’re not necessarily following those mitigation strategies, they’re at greater risk.”

On Monday night, Franklin County’s school board voted 7-1 to require documentation for mask exemptions. That move reversed an early August vote requiring masks for all students and staff, but with the caveat that anyone could seek a religious or medical exemption with no documentation. During the first two weeks of the new school year, mask exemptions in county schools rose from 2020’s total of 15 to 1,225, or about one-fifth of the student body’s population.

Also on Tuesday, Morrow said she anticipated that the Food and Drug Administration could potentially recommend booster shots for the general public as early as Friday.

Booster shots, which are for individuals who were already successfully vaccinated, are intended to help increase immunity, but they are not yet approved or available except for people who are immunocompromised.

If the FDA recommends boosters for the general public, the shots would still need to be approved by the Center for Disease Control’s advisory committee on immunization practices, then endorsed by the Virginia Department of Health.

Should boosters pass those hurdles, Morrow stressed “it’s not going to be an emergency” to get a third shot, and could still take weeks or even months for those who want an additional dose to get it.

If the go-ahead is given, she said the department is ready to move forward, but if it’s not, planning will continue.

“We must allow the experts to do their jobs, and that is to review the science, to review all the evidence that either is going to support boosters or say ‘now is not yet the time, we need to more information, we need to wait to see how much our immunity changes over time,’” Morrow said.

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