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Peace of mind and protecting each other

It’s nice to have a little peace of mind.

That’s what I have been feeling ever since I became fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. I have felt free to go without a mask in most settings, and I have experienced relief that most of my friends and family members also enjoy that same protection.

That sense of security may be about to come to an end.

The dreaded delta variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 has made its way into Belmont County. So far, there are just two cases of that strain that have been identified in our local population. Thankfully, Deputy Health Commissioner Rob Sproul said the infected individuals seem to be recovering.

But those infections had to come from somewhere, which makes it likely that the variant already is more widespread than anyone realizes.

Why is this variant such a concern?

Mostly because it is highly contagious and can cause even more severe illness than the original coronavirus that swept through the country and around the globe in 2020 and the first part of 2021.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance for people who have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. While masks largely had been cast aside following a full course of shots, the CDC says that practice likely is no longer safe. It’s not so much that vaccinated individuals are apt to become severely ill with COVID-19. Instead, it is more likely than previously believed that a vaccinated person can contract the virus and spread it to others who are not protected by vaccines, including children too young to be vaccinated, the elderly and the immunocompromised.

The CDC now recommends that everyone, regardless of vaccination status, wear a facial covering in indoor public settings — at least in areas with substantial and high transmission rates. And guess what, folks? According to the CDC’s interactive online COVID data tracker, Belmont County has a “substantial” transmission rate.

So, when I stopped by the Ohio Valley Mall on Friday to have my eyeglasses repaired, I wore a mask. I was actually relieved to see a sign at LensCrafters that stated: “Masks required at this location.” I had been a little concerned that nobody else in the store would be wearing a mask. That was not the case, though. Every employee and customer I saw was masked up.

I donned my mask again when I stopped by the YWCA in Wheeling to donate some clothes for an upcoming sidewalk sale at the Y Not Repeat Boutique. I was outdoors the entire time, but I was in close proximity to the volunteer who accepted my donation. I decided that wearing a mask to help keep her safe was the least I could do. After all, that virus isn’t stopping for state lines.

On Friday, CDC Director Rochelle P. Walensky released a statement explaining the reasons for the change in guidance. It states that new data indicate that delta infection can cause people who are vaccinated and those who are not to carry a similar viral load, suggesting that the risk of transmission from a vaccinated person may be pretty high. Other variants have not behaved in this way.

Some of the data come from a study of a large outbreak that occurred following a public gathering in Massachusetts. Of the 469 COVID-19 cases identified, 346, or 74 percent, were found in fully vaccinated people. Testing indicated that 90 percent of all those cases were the delta variant.

The Washington Post also reported that an internal CDC document indicates that the “war has changed.” It states the delta variant causes more severe illness than earlier variants and that it spreads “as easily as chickenpox.”

Think about what that means as we approach the beginning of another school year — one in which most educators and parents seem determined to return to in-person learning. State officials already are recommending that all teachers and students in K-12 schools, vaccinated or not, wear masks in class.

I certainly understand that nobody wants to return to wearing a mask all the time. We definitely don’t want businesses to close again or to be ordered to stay at home as much as possible. It’s likely that the shift in policy will further undermine public confidence in the vaccines’ efficacy and in the information provided by public health officials.

But here’s how I see it: I took the necessary steps to become vaccinated and to hopefully boost my own immunity against what can be a terrible, deadly disease.

I personally know people who have suffered horribly with this illness, along with a few who have died as a result of infection. I don’t want to see that happen to anyone else — especially not if there’s anything I can do to prevent it.

So, let’s not have all the fussing and feuding this time around. We all know what steps we had to take to combat and begin to control COVID-19 over the past year and a half. Instead of ranting and raving, let’s just do what it takes to defeat this menace.

I hope you all will join me in staying informed about new coronavirus developments and the rate of transmission in the local region, wearing a mask as needed and protecting one another so we can all move forward together.

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