Julie Miller

Knox County Health Commissioner Julie Miller addresses the community during a Facebook Live COVID-19 press briefing on March 17, 2020.

MOUNT VERNON -- During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, in late 2020 and early 2021, Knox County Health Commissioner Julie Miller would update the public weekly through Facebook Live briefings.

She'd go through Knox County's current coronavirus numbers, highlight trends, interview other local experts and answer questions from viewers.

Knox Public Health slowly pulled back on the weekly briefings as the pandemic subsided this spring and summer. For months, coronavirus numbers plummeted as more and more individuals received the vaccine. 

But the pandemic has changed course in recent weeks. And on Monday night, for the first time in over four months, Miller stepped back in front of the camera.

"Unfortunately, the reason I’m back on is because we’re starting to see a surge of COVID-19 cases again," Miller told viewers.

Knox County has seen a dramatic increase in coronavirus spread over the last four weeks, according to data from Knox Public Health, mirroring trends across the state and nation as variants take hold and vaccinations flatline.

The county had 149 active cases and 15 hospitalizations on Tuesday, KPH reported, up from just four active cases and zero hospitalizations on July 8. This is the most active cases Knox County has seen since Feb. 5, and the most COVID-related hospitalizations it has seen since Jan. 29.

“We’ve had multiple outbreaks ..." Miller said. "We’ve had outbreaks due to a big event, a wedding that occurred in the county, as well as a local employer who has a number of individuals who are sick at work and have become ill with COVID. We’re working with both of those venues to try to control that situation.”

It’s unclear if the delta variant is present in Knox County due to limited sequence-testing, which identifies specific strains of the virus, KPH Nursing Director Lisa Dudgeon said last week. But local officials suspect this may be the case.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said Friday the delta variant had been detected in 86 percent of the state's active cases. Evidence shows it is more contagious than the initial strain, Ohio Department of Health Chief Medical Officer Bruce Vanderhoff said, and it is more dangerous, causing patients to become sicker quicker.

This has been the case locally in recent weeks, Miller said, as Knox Community Hospital has seen an influx of COVID-19 patients. The hospital had 12 COVID-positive patients on Monday, Miller said, with two in the ICU. Recently, Miller said a Knox County child was hospitalized with the virus.

"The thing that concerns us now ... is that most of the people who are becoming ill, or becoming sick with COVID, are sicker, or becoming more ill with symptoms than they had been last year," Miller said.

"We are seeing that non-vaccinated individuals are being hospitalized and we’re seeing more ICU admissions, which means people are getting sicker quicker."

The CDC has characterized the level of COVID-19 transmission in Knox County as "high," the highest level listed, as confirmed cases have risen 184 percent over the last week and COVID-related hospital admissions have risen 75 percent.

Nearly 12 percent of COVID-19 tests in Knox County have returned positive over the last week, up from 7 percent the week prior (testing volume has also increased by 25 percent).

Over half (48) of Ohio's 88 counties are currently listed as "high-transmission" areas by the CDC. There are 36 counties listed as "substantial-transmission" areas, and four counties listed as "moderate-transmission" areas. No counties in the state are currently listed as "low-transmission" areas by the CDC.

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.

THE PATH FORWARD: Despite the grim circumstances, Miller believes the currently available vaccines provide a glimmer of hope.

Knox Public Health reported last week that unvaccinated individuals had represented 94 percent of Knox County's positive cases since the beginning of July. Five of those individuals were hospitalized and "several" had progressed to the ICU.

Of the individuals who had been vaccinated but still contracted COVID-19 – referred to as "breakthrough cases" – only two had been hospitalized. The individuals were in their 80s, KPH reported, and did not require ICU care.

“Even if you are vaccinated and you get COVID-19, the symptoms are far less severe and your chances of being hospitalized are much lower,” Dudgeon said.

This is reflected through state data as well. The Ohio Department of Health reported Friday that since January, when COVID-19 vaccines became available to the general public, more than 98 percent of Ohio residents hospitalized with the novel coronavirus were not fully vaccinated.

“We want you to get vaccinated because the likelihood of you becoming severely ill or being hospitalized or dying is greatly reduced ..." Miller said.

"As of today, we have not had any deaths from COVID-19 (involving) vaccinated individuals. We have not had any of those reports. And that means that those COVID-19 vaccines are doing what they’re supposed to do: preventing severe symptoms, preventing hospitalizations and death from COVID. That’s why we want you to be vaccinated.”

Knox County's vaccination rate currently lags behind the state's, according to data from the Ohio Department of Health. Roughly 37 percent of the county was at least partially vaccinated as of Wednesday, compared to 50 percent of the state. Nearly 35 percent of Knox County is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, compared to 47 percent of the state.

Approximately 75 percent of Knox County's senior citizen population has received at least one dose of the vaccine, but rates are lower for younger age groups. Roughly 50 percent of the county's population age 50-64 has been inoculated, and less than 40 percent of those age 30-49 have received a shot.

Approximately 25 percent of those in their 20s have been vaccinated, according to the ODH. Less than 9 percent of the county's youth population (age 0-19) have received a shot.

By getting vaccinated, Deputy Health Commissioner Zach Green said residents are helping lower the level of COVID-19 transmission in the community. This will not only decrease sickness and death due to COVID-19, but will also help keep local children in classrooms this school year.

"As a father, I have school-age children in the classrooms, and I think we all can agree that having these kids in that structured environment is critical," Green said during Monday's briefing.

"To get vaccinated is a very selfless thing to do. Even when you can sit back and say, ‘Yeah, but I’m young in age, my health is for the most part great,’ it is an extremely small price to pay for all those around you, and the indirect effect that eventually can have.”

Miller urged the community to get vaccinated – not only to protect one's self, but also to protect others. She said the currently available vaccines are the public's strongest weapon against COVID-19, and the key to an eventual return to normalcy.

“One of the things that we can do best to help stop this war and to get this war under control is to vaccinate. And vaccination is, I know, a personal choice. For some of us, it’s gonna be mandatory. I know there’s many health care institutions and other employers who are gonna mandate the vaccine. But it is the front line of getting this pandemic under control ..." Miller said.

"Herd immunity still can happen, but we do still have to get more people vaccinated in order to meet that herd-immunity level.”

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Staff Reporter

Grant is a 2018 graduate of Ohio Northern University, where he studied journalism and played basketball. He likes coffee, books and minor league baseball. He loves telling stories and has a passion for local news.