COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are rising in the U.S. as the Delta variant spreads fast – a disappointing trend for experts who say it’s a preventable disease. In fact, “almost all” recently admitted COVID patients – both at Novant Health and nationwide – have not been vaccinated, said Dr. David Priest, Novant Health chief safety, quality and epidemiology officer.

Dr. David Priest smiles in a white lab coat.
Dr. David Priest

“At this point, this is a disease of the unvaccinated. It’s really preventable if people get vaccinated,” Priest said.

The surge in Delta cases is also leading to more deaths. “Each death is tragic and even more heartbreaking when we know that the majority of these deaths could be prevented with a safe and available vaccine,” Priest added.

He shared 5 things to know right now as COVID cases tick upward.

1. Hospitalizations are trending younger.

The average age of our admitted COVID patients is now 47. That's down from a high of 61 years old in previous months. So, if someone is thinking to themselves, ‘I'm young and I'm in good health. I'll probably be fine.’ None of those things make you immune to COVID; particularly the Delta variant, which is more contagious and putting younger people in the hospital as we found in our system.

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2. It's safer to get antibodies from the COVID vaccine.

Almost everyone will eventually have antibodies to COVID, either because they've had it or because they've been vaccinated. There's really no avoiding that. It’s much safer to get your antibodies from a vaccine than it is to get COVID, which comes with risks of serious complications.

We’re also learning that if you’ve had COVID, you have a protection for a number of months. But that protection tends not to be as predictable, or even sometimes as vigorous as protection from the vaccinations.

3. Kids and masking in schools.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) strongly suggests in-person learning for the upcoming school year. The updated guidance also recommends that everyone older than age 2 wear masks in school, regardless of vaccination status.

AAP recommends universal masking because a large portion of students are not yet eligible for the vaccine, and masking is proven to reduce transmission of the virus and to protect those who are not vaccinated.

School districts will make those decisions on their own, but, in general, I think the safest thing to do is start the school season with kids wearing masks. It increases the odds of not having to do anything drastic, like shift to virtual learning. I encourage school districts to see how it goes and reevaluate month-to-month.

4. The vaccine is safe for pregnant women.

When you look at the data, there's no evidence that the vaccine is harmful to fertility, pregnant women or breastfeeding mothers. All of the national obstetrical groups recommend the vaccine.

Also, when pregnant women get COVID, it can be very severe. So, if you're playing the odds, they're very much in your favor to be vaccinated. It’s much safer than not getting vaccinated if you're pregnant or considering fertility.

5. How COVID spreads – and doesn’t.

COVID spreads when an infected person breathes out droplets and small particles that contain the virus. These droplets and particles can be breathed in by other people or may contaminate surfaces they touch.

It’s highly unlikely that fully vaccinated individuals could carry and spread COVID to our unvaccinated population. Could it occur in incredibly rare circumstances? It could because people who are vaccinated can occasionally get COVID again. However, those cases are rare and generally mild. Protect yourself by getting vaccinated now.

With greater supply of the vaccine and more flexibility, Novant Health’s effort to curb the pandemic has shifted to primary adult and pediatric care clinics. Bringing the vaccine into clinics, where it’s administered by a trusted physician, is another opportunity to reach unvaccinated people.

“It's that personal touch that really makes a difference, and I've seen that in my own practice,” Priest said. “People who are adamantly opposed to vaccination have come in, and once I address their concerns, they’re willing to get it. There's so much misinformation that's been moved around the internet. Some patients just throw up their hands and say, ‘I don't know what to believe.’ But that one-on-one conversation makes a world of difference.”