With a new Delta variant of COVID-19 on the rise and confirmed cases following suit, Johnson County Public Health Director Julie Lemaster Bush said that vaccination is one of the only remaining lines of defense available to our communities in the absence of mask mandates and social distancing guidelines.

Bush said that cases rose from just three active cases on July 5 and now has risen to 37 active cases as of the evening of Monday, July 19, signaling a rapid increase in active cases of the virus -- which has now mutated into another variant that data is showing to be more transmissible and makes those who contract get sicker faster. Over the past three weeks, Johnson County has moved from green status to orange status on the Kentucky state incidence rate map — with a rating of 14.2 confirmed cases per 100,000 of the general population. Bush said there were 28 new cases of the virus just last week.

“Clearly, we’re seeing it go up in Johnson County, over the last couple of weeks, the same thing we’re seeing across the state,” Bush said. “It’s the same thing we’re seeing across the nation.”

Bush said that the Delta variant of COVID-19 is definitely present in Kentucky and even more prevalent than the original strain of the virus, although genetic sequencing for the variant is limited due to the lack of a lab capable of testing for the strain in the state.

“The problem is, they think that this variant is much more transmissible and carries a higher viral load, so it’s more easily transmitted person-to-person, and the other problem with Johnson County is that the vaccination rate is not really very high,” Bush said. “We’re at 42 percent, which is not the lowest in the state, it’s kind of in the middle of the pack, but we’re definitely not in the highest ... we’re continuing to push vaccinations because that’s really the only thing that we have without a mask mandate, people are not social distancing, they’re vacationing, they’re gathering with families and things have been opened up, so we’re seeing it spread through families and through their workplaces and vaccinations are the best protection we have right now.”

The Johnson County Health Department is meeting with local schools in preparation for the beginning of the school year, Bush said, and the vaccination phases have now opened up to make vaccinations available to adolescents from age 12 to 17, meaning the health department will be hosting walk-in vaccinations clinics for that age group and all others currently eligible for the vaccine today, July 21, and next Wednesday, July 28 from  9 a.m. to 3 p.m. According to Bush, it is extremely vital to stopping another widespread outbreak, if it is possible to do so, that as many people as possible receive vaccinations — which Bush said have proven effective in lessening the effects of the Delta variant and thereby achieve the goal of lessening the likely impending strain on hospitals and treatment centers. Even if the vaccine does not prevent you from contracting the variant, it has proven extremely effective in lessening the effects and severity of the virus and should help to flatten this new curve.

“It’s hard to say right now, but just looking back over the last couple of weeks, cases are growing very quickly and ... people seem to be getting much sicker, much quicker with this Delta variant,” Bush said. “It’s very concerning how quickly cases have risen up in the last couple of weeks.”

Bush said she would hope that, in the face of looking at the same situation we were in this time last year, community members would be willing to look out for their friends and family, put aside the politicization of the vaccine and the conspiracy theories and be less hesitant to receive the vaccine -- she herself has experienced hesitancy and she asked that, in an age of misinformation, that Johnson County residents remember that she and other public health workers are community members and their friends and family and care about the wellbeing of our fellow community members.

“It’s a personal choice and it’s always been a personal choice, but unfortunately, it has been made into a political issue rather than a public health issue and for me, personally, I have had to distinguish between people’s personal views about politics and a public health view on how the vaccine plays into this, and it’s concerning to me that, maybe it’s a lack of education or maybe people just don’t understand, and they’ll say, ‘Well, it’s not Food and Drug Administration-approved,’ and, well, it’s under an Emergency Use Authorization, and it’s been studied and people have gone through trials and it’s gone through all of those things to get to where we are to be able to have the vaccine and all of that was done in 2020,” Bush said, adding that she would hope people would trust their local public health workers, even if they don’t trust national media or national public health experts. “ I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a public health worker who has not been vaccinated, because we know what’s happened and what all it’s gone through, and we’ve been in the meetings and we’ve looked at the data and all that was going on through the process.”

Having a close interaction with the virus, tracking the hospitalized persons, seeing the effects of the virus firsthand and seeing its impact on families and communities up close and personal has affected Bush’s and other public health worker’s opinion on the need for vaccination, Bush said.

“For us, most of us, and me, personally, my decision to take the vaccine was the thought of, ‘Well, I’d rather take my chances on the vaccine than take my chances on COVID,’ because I have seen the effects of it, we have followed these cases, we know how sick they’ve been, we call them everyday and check on them and we have to talk to the nurses at the hospital because we can’t talk to them because they’re on a ventilator,” Bush said. “We have to talk to these families who have lost family members, and it’s very real. It really hits home with us because we deal with it everyday. We know that the general public doesn’t, but we see it every day.”

Bush said that this is what public health is about -- health and protecting the public and she and other public health workers know what the vaccine does and they are confident that it is safe.

“I think it’s very sad that it’s been used as a political tool, I don’t know how that happened and how we got here, but I would hope that people would trust their local health departments, their local nurses, me, and people that they know,” Bush said. “I mean, you’re our friends and family, you’re our community and we wouldn’t steer you wrong.”

For more information on COVID-19 in Johnson County, follow the Johnson County Health Department on Facebook by searching for “Johnson County Health Dept.” and through the state’s website at, www.kycovid19.ky.gov.