Dr. Chi Huang of Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist said he wants people to understand the worsening threat posed by COVID-19, especially in counties like Wilkes with low vaccination rates, inconsistent masking and rapidly rising hospital admissions of patients with the virus.

Huang is section chief of hospital medicine at Winston-Salem-based Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist and associate professor of internal medicine at Wake Forest School of Medicine.

“We should focus on what really matters — the well-being of our loved ones, our families, friends and communities,” added Huang, who assists at times at Wilkes Medical Center in North Wilkesboro. He has received awards for community service, teaching and leadership, such as the Harvard Medical School Golden Stethoscope Award in 2003.

Huang said the surge of the delta variant of COVID-19 is reaching the point where availability of inpatient and intensive care unit beds at Wilkes Medical Center and other hospitals statewide could become a concern.

He cited the impact on hospital staff as another concern and said they have worked courageously since the pandemic began.

Huang said he expects the current COVID-19 surge to worsen over the next several weeks at the very least.

Wilkes County’s COVID-19 metrics have continuously worsened this month, including the week ending this past Sunday.

Wilkes Health Department Director Rachel Willard said seven COVID-19-related deaths of Wilkes residents were reported that week, the most in a single week in Wilkes. The county’s official COVID death total now is 128, which included one reported Monday.

Willard said most of the recent deaths were people in their 60s and 70s and none were residents of long-term care facilities.

At least 20 Wilkes residents were hospitalized with COVID-19 Monday, the most since early 2021.

The New York Times said the number of Wilkes residents hospitalized with COVID-19 increased 113% in the two weeks ending Saturday.

COVID-19 hospitalizations have been rising statewide since July 9, when there were 409. There were 3,197 hospitalized statewide as of Monday.

The health department reported Saturday that 20% of the county’s active COVID-19 cases were people ages 5-17. That was about 83 of about 415 active cases. Willard said 19 more school age Wilkes residents tested positive for the virus Monday.

An average of 13% of Wilkes residents tested in the two weeks ending Saturday tested positive. The state’s goal is 5% or less to slow spread of the virus. The Times said Wilkes County’s high test positivity rate suggests cases here are significantly undercounted.

“I think we’re seeing that COVID is spreading through households more than in the past,” said Willard. “What I mean is that early on we saw maybe one or two people on average in a house get it. We’re now seeing it impact almost entire households, especially if they aren’t vaccinated.”

Those with close contact with people testing positive for COVID-19 are themselves showing symptoms and testing positive sooner, she added.

By Friday, 8,006 Wilkes residents had tested positive for the virus since the pandemic began in March 2020. The total Monday was 8,130.

The Times reported an average of 43 new cases per day in Wilkes in the two weeks ending Saturday, up 56% from the prior two-week period.

“So far, August has been the month with the highest average cases since January 2021 in Wilkes County,” the Times said. “Right now, Wilkes County is at an extremely high risk for unvaccinated people.”

It said that because of high spread, the CDC recommends that even vaccinated people wear masks in Wilkes.

Health professionals say delta is by far the most infectious variant to emerge so far and accounts for virtually all current active cases of the virus in the U.S.

The overwhelming majority of active cases are the unvaccinated, including a larger number of young people. On Aug. 17, state health officials reported that 438 cases in children were tied to 50 outbreaks in schools and childcare centers, compared to 255 cases connected to 34 outbreaks the prior week.

Dr. Kacy Ramirez, M.D., pediatric infectious disease expert at Atrium Wake Baptist Health, spoke about the delta variant’s impact on children while on Dr. Christopher Ohl’s weekly COVID-19 update on Facebook on Aug. 19. Ohl is an infectious disease expert at Atrium Wake Baptist Health.

Ramirez said the delta variant is infecting a larger number of children with obesity, asthma and certain other underlying conditions and making them sicker. She said children in African-American, Latino and certain other ethnic groups and immunocompromised children are also at increased risk.

Ohl praised Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines (a Wilkes native) for issuing an order last week requiring that people wear masks in all indoor locations in the city. Ohl said this makes it easier for businesses wanting to require masks.

Due to increased patient loads and wait times in hospital emergency departments, Ohl recommended that people go to urgent care facilities or their primary care physicians for minor illnesses, injuries or COVID-19 testing.

Ohl said Wilkes is among area counties with considerably higher COVID rates and lower vaccination rates.

Wilkes also is among counties with school districts that started the 2021-22 academic year without mask mandates. Ohl and Ramirez advocate requiring that masks be worn indoors at schools.

With at least 28 school districts reversing course on mask requirements in the past 2 1/2 weeks to help curb the spread, at least 81 of the state’s 115 districts are requiring face coverings indoors.

Officials at North Wilkes and Wilkes Central high schools confirmed Monday the postponement of the schools’ next two varsity football games due to team members having COVID-19.

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