MOUNT VERNON — Viruses change. Some mutations appear but then die out. Others persist and can outpace earlier iterations of the virus.
Multiple variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 have been identified throughout the world, including in Knox County.
Knox Public Health is aware of two cases of the Alpha (B.1.1.7) variant and one case of Epsilon (B.1.429) variant within the county, Alayna Mowry, the secondary public information officer for Knox Public Health, wrote in an email to Knox Pages. All three of the aforementioned cases were found in March 2021, Mowry wrote.
Variations in viruses can allow the virus to spread more easily, or make it resistant to vaccines.
Both variants identified in Knox County have higher transmission rates than the original COVID-19 strain, with the Alpha variant at 50% and Epsilon at 20% increased transmission.
Some studies have been conducted to measure the effectiveness of vaccines against variants. While vaccines have been found to have a lower ability to neutralize variants, none of the known variants render vaccines completely ineffective because the shots induce broad immune defenses.
The majority of COVID-19 cases Knox Public Health (KPH) has received since the beginning of the year have been among unvaccinated people, but there have been some breakthrough cases.
Since KPH internally began tracking the vaccine status of positive cases on April 4, 2021, 7.85% of people who tested positive had received at least one vaccine dose, Mowry wrote.
The aforementioned percentage is based on the number of total cases since April 4 that KPH was able to make contact with, Mowry wrote, noting that KPH has not been able to make contact with all positive cases and was therefore unable to obtain information about the vaccination status of those they could not reach.
The Alpha variant had been the most prevalent COVID-19 strain in the U.S. for months, but the Delta variant has recently surpassed it as most prevalent, as well as most infectious. The Delta variant is estimated to be 60% more transmissible than the already highly infectious Alpha variant.
The Delta variant has yet to be identified in Knox County by KPH, Mowry wrote, however it has been found in Ohio.
Regions with high clusters of Delta variant COVID-19 cases have had low vaccination rates.
Active COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Knox County have remained low compared to other counties in the state. According to the more recent available data updated July 7, there were seven active cases and one hospitalization.
However, Knox Community Hospital CEO Bruce White worries Knox County's low vaccination rate compared to other areas of the U.S. leaves the county primed for virus spread.
Knox County is home to approximately 62,000 people, according to the latest census data, and just over 22,000 of those people have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Nearly half (48%) of the total Ohio population has received at least one dose, compared to about a third (35.56%) of the Knox County population, as of July 15. Over half of the total U.S. population (55.8%) has received at least one dose.
White compared Knox County's virus susceptibility to that of Missouri, which has recently seen a surge in COVID-19 cases.
"I have a colleague in Missouri who said they went from very, very low incidence of COVID to suddenly overnight their hospital had 65 COVID patients," White said.
Approximately 45% of Missourians have received their first vaccine dose, but fewer than a quarter of residents have in more than 20 counties in southern Missouri.
“I see us to be primed for what’s happening currently in the Missouri, Kansas, middle part of the United States right now," White said.
Because of the potential threat virus variants pose, Knox Public Health reinstated a mask requirement Monday for all its visitors, regardless of vaccination status.
“We want to be proactive in protecting community members that walk through the doors at any of our locations, including satellite clinics of the Community Health Center,” Mowry wrote following the mask reinstatement.
The requirement also includes staff who cannot keep a physical distance of 6 feet or more, or for those who are meeting in the clinical setting. Masking and vaccination are the most effective tools KPH has to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, Mowry wrote.
Knox Community Hospital also requires masking in its facilities.
Health Commissioner Julie Miller made the decision to bring back the mask requirement, Mowry wrote, adding that Miller did so on the recommendation of KPH’s medical director Ron Martinson and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s current recommendation for healthcare facilities to continue mask-wearing.
Miller could not be reached for comment, as she is out of office July 9-20.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has said he does not plan to change Ohio’s current mask policy at this time. Mount Vernon Mayor Matt Starr also said the city is not considering changes to mask policy.
"We generally take our advice from the department of health," Starr said.
The state's mask mandate expired June 2, but state officials recommend that unvaccinated people continue to wear masks indoors.
Hospitals nationwide have contemplated whether to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations among staff.
Last week, Mount Carmel in central Ohio announced all its staff and contractors conducting business in its facilities must be vaccinated against COVID-19. Trinity Health, the national health system under which Mount Carmel falls, made the decision to require vaccinations.
Knox Community Hospital currently does not require its staff to get the COVID-19 vaccine, but White said requiring staff COVID-19 vaccinations is something KCH is continuously reassessing. The decision to mandate staff vaccinations would ultimately be decided by the KCH senior leadership team, with endorsement of the governing body.