Tulare Co. officials call Delta variant 'very concerning' as two-thirds of residents remain at risk

TULARE COUNTY, Calif. (KFSN) -- With around two thirds of Tulare County residents not vaccinated and COVID-19 cases on the rise, county health officials say the dominant Delta variant of the coronavirus is very concerning.

"It's very much more contagious than the UK variant," Tulare County Public Health Director Karen Elliott said. "It is impacting as we're seeing younger population...they're having more symptoms."

California health officials say the variant is 60% more infectious than the Alpha, or UK strain, and many more times contagious than the original COVID-19 strain.

The CDC says it appears even vaccinated people infected with the variant can be infectious, and may have the same amount of virus in their body as someone who is unvaccinated.

"This new science is worrisome," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said.

In response to the new developments, the CDC revised its recommendations on masks earlier this week.

The agency now says everyone should wear a mask indoors in areas of substantial or high transmission.

As of Friday, that includes all counties in Central California.

"I know it's hard to step backwards in masking," Elliott said. "I know that people got vaccinated so we could not mask. But with this Delta variant and having unfortunately a large population within Tulare County that is still not vaccinated, and of course those under 12, we want to protect them and to do that, what we have found is masking is the best."

The number of hospitalized COVID patients at Kaweah Health Medical Center has been steadily rising in recent days, and the vast majority have been unvaccinated.

Over the last month, Tulare County health officials say the unvaccinated have made up more than 88% of hospitalizations.

As of Friday, Kaweah Health was treating 30 COVID patients, compared to four about a month ago.

Kaweah Health CEO Gary Herbst says that's the highest number in a couple of months.

"When (we) hit four, we started thinking alright, it's going to disappear and in a few days, we're going to hit zero," Herbst said. "But it kind of plateaued around there and then slowly started ticking back up."

The hospital sends COVID-19 positive specimens to the Tulare County Public Health Lab.

Herbst says that 95% of those samples have been identified as the Delta variant.

He believes the variant's spread was one factor the state considered when it issued new rules this week requiring healthcare workers to get vaccinated or be regularly tested for COVID-19.

There's also a fear, Herbst says, that hospital staffing levels could plunge again.

"Back in December, we had 300 of our employees that were out on a COVID leave at a time when we were bursting at the seams and we had 170 total patients," Herbst said. "So I think that all of those factors are really coming into play and again, we see the vaccine as being so, so effective, that that's where we really gotta put our energy."

Tulare County Public Health officials say they did see a significant jump in vaccinations last week.

They say there is no shortage of the shots.

Head to myturn.ca.gov to make an appointment.
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