Amid a COVID-19 surge, New Year's gatherings discouraged. National Guard to support hospitals

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With more positive cases and people hospitalized than at any point in the pandemic and the omicron variant spreading "like brushfire," Gov. John Carney is activating the National Guard to support hospitals and asking residents to reconsider holiday plans.

Delaware will reenter a state of emergency Monday to allow members of the Delaware National Guard to serve as nurses to alleviate the strain placed on the state's hospitals. Carney is not issuing any new restrictions, but state officials are urging caution heading into the New Year's weekend.

"If you are gathering with people indoors and you do not have a mask on over this next week and on New Year's Eve, you should expect to become positive with COVID," said Molly Magarik, secretary of the Department of Health and Social Services.

For the third time this week, Delaware broke its record for the number of new daily COVID-19 cases with 1,991 reported Thursday.

Gov. John Carney speaks outside the Carvel State Office Building in Wilmington ahead of signing a bill to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Carney provided an update on the spread of COVID-19 in Delaware on Thursday.
Gov. John Carney speaks outside the Carvel State Office Building in Wilmington ahead of signing a bill to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Carney provided an update on the spread of COVID-19 in Delaware on Thursday.

The seven-day case average, which helps account for variance in how many tests are conducted each day and when they are recorded, also reached an all-time high Thursday at 1,193.6.

Delaware reported 458 COVID-19 hospitalizations, which places the state just shy of its peak of 474 on Jan. 14. However, more people are hospitalized in Delaware with non-COVID illnesses compared with last year, pushing multiple hospitals beyond capacity in recent days.

The state's emphasis has remained on encouraging people to get vaccinated and boosted.

"We really are at a pivot point," Magarik said.

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Where are cases being reported and who is testing positive?

Case increases are being reported statewide, but the surge is worse in parts of central and lower Delaware where vaccination rates are lower, state officials said Thursday.

By county, Kent County is reporting the highest number of cases per capita followed by New Castle County, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Delawareans ages 18-34 are accounting for the most cases per capita by age demographic. People in that age bracket are the least likely to be vaccinated among those older than 12.

Vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals are testing positive. From Dec. 1 to Dec. 19, about 27% of cases were "breakthrough cases," meaning the person who tested positive had received two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

What about people with booster shots?

The state does not have publicly available data on how many people who received booster shots have tested positive or been hospitalized.

To date, 34% of Delaware's fully vaccinated population has received a booster shot, according to CDC data. That's in line with the national average.

Overall, about 1 in 5 Delawareans have the best available protection. It's possible they test positive, but they are generally less likely to suffer a severe case than those who are unvaccinated, partially vaccinated or fully vaccinated but not boosted.

"If you haven't gotten a booster, you want to get that extra protection, particularly as we see the surge coming with omicron," Gov. John Carney said Thursday.

Most of the recent surge in Delaware can be attributed to the delta variant. The omicron variant, which became the dominant strain in the U.S. in mid-December, is considered more transmissible than delta and is growing quickly in Delaware, officials said.

Anyone 16 and older can receive a booster shot. CNN reported Thursday the Food and Drug Administration is expected to broaden eligibility for Pfizer booster shots to children 12 to 15 in the coming days.

What should I do about New Year's?

State officials asked residents Thursday to reconsider their New Year's plans and avoid celebrating indoors without masks with people outside their household at restaurants and bars or at home.

"Omicron is everywhere and we've yet to be able to figure out how to eat and drink through masks," Magarik said. "If you're having a dinner party, if you're getting together with somebody for coffee, that is where this spread is occurring."

Delaware Health and Human Services Secretary Molly Magarik said Thursday those who gather indoors without masks on New Years Eve should expect to test positive for COVID-19.
Delaware Health and Human Services Secretary Molly Magarik said Thursday those who gather indoors without masks on New Years Eve should expect to test positive for COVID-19.

Magarik said those who don't abide by her advice should expect to test positive for COVID-19 in the following days. Those who do gather on New Year's should be careful about what they do after and avoid seeing immunocompromised people, Magarik said.

Recent data has shown people tend to infect others one to two days before they start showing symptoms or test positive and are at their most contagious two or three days after testing positive, Magarik said.

In 2021, Delaware's case and hospitalization peaks occurred in the two weeks after the start of the new year. The state is currently on pace to be well beyond those levels.

"We all have to step up and take personal responsibility and individually do what we need to do to prevent this from getting worse," said Ellie Salinski, assistant medical director at Bayhealth's Kent County emergency department. "If we don't do that, I don't know if and when that will happen."

What is the state doing about the surge?

In the past two weeks, Carney has leaned in on messaging around personal responsibility and voluntary compliance in an attempt to encourage residents to get vaccinated and wear masks.

Last week he said without the federal money Delaware received early in the pandemic to support businesses closed or limited by the state's mitigation tactics, he would consider only "restrictive measures" short of closing businesses.

On Thursday, Carney reiterated he believes the situation is best approached by residents accepting personal responsibility.

Bayhealth Hospital is one of several Delaware hospitals with limited capacity amid the latest COVID-19 surge. The state is training 100 members of the Delaware National Guard to serve as CNAs at skilled nursing facilities to attempt to alleviate the strain.
Bayhealth Hospital is one of several Delaware hospitals with limited capacity amid the latest COVID-19 surge. The state is training 100 members of the Delaware National Guard to serve as CNAs at skilled nursing facilities to attempt to alleviate the strain.

At this time last year, Delawareans were subject to limits on private gatherings and a mask mandate.

"We're at a different stage as I mentioned before," Carney said. "Our focus at the state level has to be getting more people vaccinated, making sure we understand the questions about the variants and how they spread, making sure we're focused on keeping children in school and making sure they have tests ... and most importantly, now helping [hospitals] with the surge of hospitalizations they've seen."

The state of emergency will allow members of the Delaware National Guard to work as certified nursing assistants in skilled nursing facilities. The objective is to move some patients requiring long-term care so hospitals can continue treating COVID-19 patients.

About 100 members of the Delaware National Guard are being trained.

Starting Friday, the Delaware Department of Correction will suspend in-person visitation due to the increased transmission of COVID-19 in Delaware.

The state is committed to keeping schools open

Carney said there hasn't been a discussion around allowing districts to go remote after the winter holiday break.

With a mask mandate in place, the governor called schools "safer than just about any place."

He is concerned that social gatherings over the holidays will allow the virus to penetrate schools and said he hopes young adult parents and children adhere to the state's advice of being careful and avoiding gatherings.

All teachers and school staff of Delaware K-12 schools have to be vaccinated or tested regularly. The state offers districts a weekly testing opportunity for students through a partnership with a California-based company called Quidel.

The state's COVID-19 dashboard shows 6,622 students and staff in public schools tested positive this school year prior to Christmas Eve. The state does not provide data on private schools.

"It's not just for their own educational and mental health benefits," Carney said of his desire to keep students learning in person, "when children are at home parents can't go to work."

Students at the University of Delaware and Delaware State University will be required to have a booster shot when they return to campus for the spring semester.

Contact Brandon Holveck at bholveck@delawareonline.com. Follow him on Twitter @holveck_brandon.

This article originally appeared on Delaware News Journal: COVID-19 in Delaware: Updates on New Year's, schools and booster shots

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