Four Wilkes County residents with COVID-19 died at Wilkes Medical Center this past weekend, bringing the county’s official death total from the virus to 160.

Wilkes Health Department Director Rachel Willard said the four included the first confirmed COVID-19-related death of Wilkes teenager. She said all four had underlying health issues, with the oldest being in his/her 70s.

The four deaths came near the end of the month with the most COVID-19-related Wilkes deaths since the pandemic began, and also as new COVID-19 cases slowly decrease in the county.

Thirty confirmed COVID-related deaths of Wilkes residents were reported in the first 28 days of September.

Willard said on Sept. 21 that most of the county’s COVID deaths in the two weeks prior to that date were people in their 30s, 40s and 50s, a change from earlier in the pandemic when most of those dying were in their late 60s or older.

Willard said this shift is partly due to higher vaccination rates among older adults.

Although reports posted on weekdays by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) show a recent gradual decrease in positive COVID-19 tests in Wilkes, the county crossed the 10,000 mark in total cases since the pandemic began on Monday with 10,025.

DHHS reported a rate of 947 new cases per 100,000 people in the two weeks ending Monday for Wilkes. This rate is calculated to compare counties with differing populations.

The Wilkes rate peaked at a little over 1,500 per 100,000 in the first week of September and was above 1,000 per 100,000 all month until this week.

Willard said Wilkes County’s daily% positive rate on COVID-19 tests was 9.6% Monday, compared to 10.3% last week and 12% two weeks ago. It was 9% statewide Monday. State officials have a goal of lowering it to 5%.

The health department reported that Wilkes had 382 active COVID-19 cases as of Monday, including 40 people who were hospitalized.

Willard cited a slight uptick in COVID-19 vaccinations in Wilkes.

DHHS reported that 40% of all Wilkes residents were fully vaccinated as of Monday. Willard said 4% of Wilkes residents ages 12-17 have been fully vaccinated. The 12-17 age group became eligible for the Pfizer vaccine in May.

DHHS reported Monday that statewide, 64% of people 18 and older are fully vaccinated. It’s about 37% for people 12-17 statewide.

Willard said COVID-19 cases in the Wilkes schools have decreased since the first few weeks of this academic year.

DHHS reported that as of Sept. 21, there were six COVID-19 “clusters” in the Wilkes schools. According to DHHS, a cluster is when at least five people with COVID-19 are connected in some way in a school setting, such as being in the same classroom.

These included one cluster apiece at West Wilkes Middle School (15 cases) and Mountain View Elementary School (five cases). There were two clusters apiece at West Wilkes High School (both with five cases) and Mulberry Elementary School (one with eight cases and the other with five).

Wilkes Schooll Superintendent Mark Byrd said Tuesday that clusters far this school year occurred among the JV cheerleader squad, JV football team and varsity football team members at West Wilkes High School; seventh-graders and eighth-graders at West Wilkes Middle School; fifth-graders at Mountain View Elementary School; fifth-graders and riders on bus 179 at Mulberry Elementary School; East Wilkes High School JV volleyball team members; sixth-graders at Central Wilkes Middle School; and pre-K students at Wilkesboro Elementary School.

Dr. Christopher Ohl, an infectious disease expert at Atrium Health-Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, said in his Sept. 23 COVID-19 update on Facebook that COVID is transmitted among people under 18 more often in after-school activities and social activities than in classrooms, particularly in high schools.

“Most of the kids in our area who are being hospitalized with COVID-19 have underlying medical problems. The number one associated problem is being overweight. It’s almost like the two epidemics have crossed,” he said, referring to childhood obesity and COVID-19.

Ohl said new cases and% positivity rates are slowly decreasing statewide as a COVID-19 surge that began in August eases.

“It’s not coming down quite as quickly as I thought it would and the reason for that is that is still about a third and sometimes a little more of the cases are our under age 18 population,” said Ohl. Those under 18 are more socially active than people in any other age group, he explained.

Ohl also noted that there are a few more pediatric hospitalizations than last spring but they aren’t up substantially.

According to DHHS, Wilkesboro Assisted Living Center was the only congregate care facility in Wilkes with a COVID-19 outbreak. The facility had four cases, including two residents and two staff people.

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