August 9, 2021, MORRIS, IL – Seventeen months since the COVID-19 pandemic swept into our area, Dr. John Bolden is understandably frustrated about where we stand.
During the first week of August, there were been between 4-6 hospitalized patients with COVID infection at Morris Hospital each day, the hospital’s highest numbers since mid-May. The 7-day positivity rate at Morris Hospital has risen from 6.8 percent to 9.9 percent in a matter of one week, and the 7-day positivity rate for Grundy County is 6.19 percent compared to 3.2 percent just two weeks prior.
According to the CDC, only 38.5 percent of Grundy County residents are fully vaccinated and 55.1 percent have received at least one dose. It’s apparent to Dr. Bolden our country and community are going backwards in the fight against COVID.
“I’m not feeling good about it at all,” says Dr. Bolden, infectious disease physician and chair of the Infection Control Committee. “I’m empathetic to the reasons why people haven’t gotten vaccinated, as they may have wanted to see how things were going to go for a family member or friend who got the vaccine, but there’s been so many people vaccinated. It’s already been eight months now, so that should be long enough. Dosing-wise, we’ve had over 300 million doses given and very rare complications from the vaccine. It’s apparent to me the benefits far outweigh the risks.”
In a candid discussion about COVID, Dr. Bolden shared his views on a variety of topics that address key facts and misinformation that has been circulating. Having worked on the front lines and even lost a family friend to COVID, Dr. Bolden feels confident that stopping the pandemic is in our control as a society, but it requires the cooperation of everyone to make it happen.
Q: What can you tell us about the Delta variant?
Dr. Bolden: Basically, the Delta variant is a different strain of the COVID-19 virus, but it’s been shown to be a lot more transmissible. That means it can spread quicker and cause more severe illness and also possibly death depending on the patient’s vaccination status and their co-morbidities, whether they are obese, diabetic or they have some other immuno-compromising condition where they cannot fight off the infection.
Q: Is the COVID vaccine still effective with the emergence of the Delta variant?
Dr. Bolden: The vaccine has shown to be protective against the Alpha strain and now the Delta strain. Vaccinated people who have gotten ill typically have had very mild illness. The bottom line is, both Moderna and Pfizer are at least 95 percent effective which is very high for a vaccine. The vaccines were never expected to be perfect. But they’re the best tool we have. If you got to choose between having mild flu-like symptoms versus being in the hospital requiring oxygen or a ventilator, wouldn’t you pick the former? I think we should look at it this way: while the vaccine should keep you out of the hospital, it is possible for the mutating virus to find a way around the vaccine, especially for those who may not wash their hands diligently or mask in big crowds. I think overall the vaccine has been a very important and very effective tool for us to fight our way out of this pandemic.
Q: Do you personally see a difference in hospitalized patients who are vaccinated versus unvaccinated?
Dr. Bolden: We absolutely see a difference between hospitalized patients who are vaccinated compared to unvaccinated. Since the vaccine came out in December, at least 90 percent of the COVID positive hospitalized patients are not vaccinated. They’ve been pretty ill, requiring oxygen, going on a ventilator, and more likely to face the worst scenario. The hospitalized patients are younger, too. We’re seeing more patients under age 60 landing in the hospital with COVID, and most of them haven’t been vaccinated. Some of the hospitalized patients have told me that they’ve changed their mind about the vaccine and plan to get it once they get over the illness.
Q: For those who got the vaccine in December or January, do you feel it is still effective?
Dr. Bolden: I’m biased because the vaccine has been very effective in my case. I recently had an antibody test, and it showed that I still had quite a bit of antibody protection eight months after getting the vaccine, so I can relay that good news to my patients. The vaccine is still very effective.
Q: Nationally, there have been significant increases in cases and hospitalizations over the past few weeks. Do you feel there is cause for concern in our community?
Dr. Bolden: Yes, I am concerned because there are still many people who have not been vaccinated for varying reasons, whether they are fearful of the vaccine or received misinformation through social media platforms or from other people. It’s concerning because we’re seeing an increase in cases.
Q: What are your recommendations for everyone – vaccinated or unvaccinated – about how we can prevent the spread of COVID-19?
Dr. Bolden: We need to continue to be proactive and diligent about doing the things that have proven to slow down transmission. So please follow the updated mask mandate, especially when indoors. It doesn’t matter if you’re vaccinated or unvaccinated because we’ve learned in the last few weeks that asymptomatic vaccinated people can spread COVID to non-vaccinated people. Likewise, asymptomatic non-vaccinated people can pass COVID to vaccinated people. Even if an indoor establishment doesn’t have a sign posted stating masks are required, I would implore everyone to wear their masks, especially if there are multiple people in your area.
Outdoors it can be more of personal judgement. If you’re outdoors and you’re going to your car with no one around, then obviously you don’t have to wear a mask. Whether you’re at a picnic with a small group or a large gathering with 200 people and everyone is close together, it’s probably a good idea to wear the mask. In that instance, you don’t know who is vaccinated and who isn’t vaccinated. Even if you’re the only one wearing a mask, it’s important for your personal safety.
Handwashing and hand sanitizer are still very, very important. That is probably more important now than before, especially with the variant. Hand hygiene is one way we can slow down transmission, especially with this variant.
Q: Until Gov. Pritzker’s recent mandate about masking in schools, there was a significant debate about this issue. What are your thoughts about masking in schools for both children and teachers?
Dr. Bolden: At this point, it’s a no-brainer that masks need to be worn in school, same as we are wearing them in healthcare settings. Positivity rates are going up, and vaccinated can pass COVID to unvaccinated and vice versa. Additionally, there’s no vaccine for children 12 years and under. You could be sending kids to school who have COVID and may not know it, and they may be spreading the virus among their classmates if they’re not masked. Teachers who aren’t masked can also pass the virus on to their students who are not vaccinated or who are not masked. There’s just so many ways that the virus can spread if you’re not masked. You are putting children in harm’s way as far as I’m concerned. I firmly believe that children and faculty should wear masks going back to school. When you think about it, wearing a mask is a very minor trade off so that our kids can attend school in person this year.
Q: In your opinion, when do you see us finally reaching the point of herd immunity?
Dr. Bolden: I don’t think herd immunity will be achieved until vaccines are approved for those who are 12 and younger, which would probably be around the end of the year if not the start of 2022. We’re going to need a lot more teens and adults to get vaccinated, too. For herd immunity, we need at least 70 percent of the total population before we start seeing a dent in this.
Q: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Dr. Bolden: I do wish that more people would listen to their doctors and seek information from credible sources. Then they would see the reasons and benefits for receiving the vaccine, and they’d probably be able to go about a more normal social and everyday life, which I feel the vaccine has allowed me and other vaccinated people to do.
# # #