Wilkes County is in the grips of an exploding COVID-19 variant that is twice as contagious, makes people sicker and is more of a threat to school-age children than the original alpha strain.

In just the month of August, the delta variant tripled Wilkes County’s COVID-19 case count and pushed it close to the prior peak in January. Wilkes ended August with 130 confirmed COVID-19 related deaths, up from 117 at the start of the month.

Susan Bachmeier, director of nursing at Wilkes Medical Center, said there were five times more deaths statewide in the last month or so when the delta variant become dominant than at any other time in the pandemic.

There were 13 COVID-19-related deaths at Wilkes Medical Center, exceeding the total there in some entire years. One was a patient in his/her early 30s with young children.

Infectious disease experts say the delta variant is a greater threat in areas with low vaccination rates because it spreads there faster and has greater opportunity to mutate further into strains that are increasingly severe and contagious.

This makes it vastly more important that Wilkes residents get vaccinated and follow recommended practices that help slow the spread of COVID-19. With only 36% of the county’s total population vaccinated, Wilkes still has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the state.

The delta strain is a greater breakthrough threat to vaccinated people, but they’re still better protected than the unvaccinated and so typically don’t get very sick and end up hospitalized.

The delta strain leaves unvaccinated people with higher viral loads that further escalate transmission and overload hospitals.

All but one of the 28 COVID patients in Wilkes Medical Center as of Aug. 26 were unvaccinated. These patients occupied all of the hospital’s intensive care unit beds Aug. 26, with over 85% on ventilators. Two were in the emergency department awaiting ICU beds.

The severity of the delta strain of COVID-19 might do more than anything yet to prompt Wilkes Countians to get vaccinated, but tragically after much unnecessary suffering and more to come.

Wilkes Emergency Medical Services Director Tim Pennington said 67% of Wilkes EMS staff were half or fully vaccinated last week, up from 35% a week earlier.

He attributed this increase to his paramedics seeing COVID-19 patients become sick much faster now and their resulting fear. “They’re okay and two hours later they’re very sick” with the delta variant.

Pennington said another influential factor was having an EMS co-worker with COVID-19 on a ventilator who for three days could have died at any minute.

This reflects how much sicker people become with the delta variant than with the alpha strain, causing them to remain hospitalized longer.

Pennington said that because of the importance of widespread vaccination to slow the spread of the delta strain and discourage it from mutating, he views the general public in Wilkes as front-line warriors and health care professionals as snipers trying to protect citizens and keep them alive.

“I just hope we can come together and develop common sense and help engage citizens deeper in the fight,” he said.

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