MOUNT VERNON -- At no point during the COVID-19 pandemic has Knox County had more active cases than it does right now.
The county had 578 active cases on Tuesday, according to Knox Public Health, up from 484 on Friday and 297 a week ago. Knox County’s previous record for active cases was 392, set Nov. 30, 2020.
The county saw a sharp increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases in August, following several months of declining numbers. There were 79 cases recorded in June and July combined; in August alone, Knox County recorded 880 positive cases.
“Knox County closed out August with its highest number of positive cases of COVID-19 in eight months,” Knox Public Health spokeswoman Pam Palm said in a press release.
Local and state officials have cited the highly contagious delta variant as the driving force behind the latest surge. Knox County’s numbers mirror those statewide, as Ohio has seen a rapid increase in cases since the variant emerged in July.
"Delta spreads like wildfire, and it seeks out anyone who’s not vaccinated," Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, the state health department's chief medical officer, said in a press conference Aug. 6.
Knox County has recorded 374 new cases in the last seven days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, representing a 21% increase from the week before. The number of COVID-19 tests conducted in the county increased 13% in the last week, and the test-positivity rate increased 5% to 25%.
The county saw a jump in COVID-related hospitalizations in early August, but those numbers have held relatively steady for the last three weeks. There were 28 county residents hospitalized with COVID-19 on Tuesday, KPH reported – up from 25 on Aug. 31 and 20 on Friday.
The county’s peak for current hospitalizations occurred on Dec. 31, 2020, according to KPH, when 41 residents were hospitalized with COVID-19. Overall, 465 county residents have been hospitalized with COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to the Ohio Department of Health.
Six county residents died from COVID-19 in August, KPH reported, up from zero in June and July combined. This brings the county’s pandemic death toll to 125.
Since the pandemic began in March 2020, Knox County has recorded 5,811 positive cases (representing 9% of the county’s population), according to KPH. Researchers warned in February that confirmed, reported cases may represent a small fraction of a community’s overall caseload, however, due to testing shortfalls.
Local officials echoed this sentiment last month, as cases began to surge 18 months into the pandemic.
“Some people don’t want to be tested because if they know they have COVID-19, they might have to miss work or won’t be able to attend a social event,” said KPH Director of Nursing Lisa Dudgeon said in a press release. “But if people are positive and continue to be in close contact with family members and co-workers, they run the risk of passing the virus on to others.”
The CDC has characterized the level of COVID-19 transmission in Knox County as "high," the highest level listed, given the sharp rise in cases and hospitalizations over the last month.
All of Ohio's 88 counties are currently listed as "high-transmission" areas by the CDC – up from roughly half of the state's counties two weeks ago.
The CDC has recommended that even fully vaccinated people wear masks in public indoor settings in areas of "substantial" or "high" transmission, due to the rise in cases nationwide.
Knox County’s vaccination rate continues to lag behind the state and national averages.
Nearly 39% of Knox County had received at least one dose of the vaccine as of Tuesday, according to the Ohio Department of Health, with over 36% of the population fully vaccinated. Roughly 52% of Ohio and 62% of the U.S. are at least partially vaccinated, while 48% of Ohio and 53% of the U.S. are fully vaccinated.
RECORD SURGE AMONG YOUTH: The population hardest-hit by the delta variant locally appears to be school-age children, according to Knox Public Health.
There were 125 confirmed cases in August among Knox County residents age 18 and younger, KPH reported – the largest monthly total for that age group since the pandemic began.
“Comparatively, there were only 13 positive cases among youth collectively this past June and July,” Palm wrote.
In August 2020, there were three confirmed cases among Knox County youth. The last time numbers were this high for school-age children was in November and December 2020, KPH reported, when more than 100 cases were recorded each month.
Local officials are citing the beginning of the school year as one reason behind the recent surge in youth cases. High school and middle school students accounted for 73% of the youth cases in August, KPH reported, while 16% of the cases were among elementary students. Children under the age of five accounted for 11% of the new cases, including three cases under the age of one.
“The increase in positive cases among students not only affects the individuals but also classmates and family members who may have to quarantine because of being a close contact,” KPH deputy health commissioner Zach Green said in a press release.
“That keeps more students out of school and group activities like sports. Plus, parents may be unable to go to work.”
Less than a month into the school year, over half of Knox County’s K-12 school districts have implemented mandatory masking for students and staff due to elevated COVID-19 spread.
All six districts began the school year with mask-optional policies, despite recommendations from Knox Public Health, the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics to implement universal masking.
Knox County’s rise in infections among school-age children isn’t an anomaly.
More Ohioans under the age of 18 were diagnosed with COVID-19 the week of Aug. 22 than at any other time in the pandemic, according to the Ohio Department of Health. More than 17,000 individuals in this age bracket tested positive in the last full week of August, accounting for nearly 25% of the state’s cases during that time.
A small percentage of children who have contracted the virus, both locally and statewide, have suffered serious medical consequences in the short-term.
In Knox County, seven of the 593 children who have tested positive since the pandemic began have been hospitalized, and none have died, according to KPH. In Ohio, 1,369 of the 134,858 children who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 have been hospitalized, and eight have died, according to the ODH. That translates to a hospitalization rate of 1% among kids and a mortality rate of 0.005% statewide, data shows.
Still, health officials worry about the potential long-term effects of COVID-19 on children. They also worry about the effect rising case rates could have on pediatric hospitals.
"It's not this quick little virus everyone is getting over. ... We are seeing some kids who are having to be hospitalized and be put on ventilators. For them, it's a really significant disease with a months-long recovery," Dr. Sara Bode, a primary care physician and medical director of Nationwide Children's Hospital's Care Connection School-Based Health and Mobile Clinics, told the Columbus Dispatch this week.
"Even one child death is certainly one too many."
Knox Public Health has been working with local school districts since the pandemic began to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. The health department has encouraged and helped implement multiple mitigation measures, including masking, social distancing, proper ventilation and hygiene practices, and vaccination of school personnel.
“We know the importance of having students in school, in-person, five days a week,” Green said in a press release. “But we also want to keep them safe. Knox Public Health will issue isolation orders to anyone who has tested positive. For those who are identified as a close contact to a confirmed case, we will order quarantine if they are not vaccinated or were not wearing a mask when in contact with the positive case.”
The COVID-19 vaccine remains plentiful in Knox County and is available at Knox Public Health, as well as several pharmacies and doctor’s offices. Three different brands of vaccine are available for adults age 18 and older. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has been approved for children ages 12 to 17. It takes five weeks to be fully vaccinated.
To make an appointment at Knox Public Health to receive the COVID-19 vaccine or be tested for COVID-19, call 740-399-8008. Other locations for testing and vaccine administration are listed on the KPH website at knoxhealth.com.
Knox Public Health is located at 11660 Upper Gilchrist Rd. in Mount Vernon and is open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.