By Donald Gilpin
The COVID-19 virus, in its current predominant BA.5 variant, is “still evolving rapidly,” warned White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha in a July 17 interview. But around town in Princeton it looks like the pandemic is over, with most people behaving normally, showing little hesitation to go out and few masks in evidence.
Infection rates seem to have leveled off locally, but nationwide they’re rising. Is Princeton prepared for the fall flu and back-to-school season, with cooler weather and activities moving indoors?
Princeton Board of Health Chair George DiFerdinando noted that we’re still not out of the woods, and he emphasized some essential guidance based on lessons learned from the pandemic so far.
“While it’s clear that many people have moved on from mask wearing and social distancing, there are still clear benefits to both those non-pharmaceutical interventions,” he wrote in an email Tuesday. “BA.5 is the most infectious variant yet, with its impact on severe disease being ‘softened’ by the high rates of vaccination in New Jersey in general and Princeton in particular.”
He continued, “We do know that BA.5 can cause infection and disease even if you’re fully vaccinated and boosted. If you have other health conditions that might make a case of COVID worse, if you’re older, or if you’re planning to attend a large event that you really don’t want to miss, mask wearing, keeping your distance, and shopping or dining during ‘off hours’ still make sense.”
The BA.5 subvariant has been described by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as “a variant of concern,” which accounted for about 65 percent of all new infections last week.
New Jersey reported a COVID-19 transmission rate of 1.11 on Monday, up from 1.10 over the weekend, with any number above 1 indicating that the outbreak is expanding, with each new case leading to more than one additional new case.
Mercer County is considered in the medium risk category for COVID-19 transmission, along with Hunterdon, Salem, and Cumberland counties.
All 17 other New Jersey counties are now considered high risk according to the CDC.
DiFerdinando, an internist and longtime public health program director, went on to urge residents to stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccines and boosters. “Not all who are eligible for boosters or even for initial vaccination are fully vaccinated,” he wrote. “I never want to judge why any individual is not vaccinated, but I can say there is a demonstrated benefit to you, your family, and the community that being fully vaccinated and boosted gives you.”
Last week the Food and Drug Administration authorized Novavax’s COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use, making it the fourth COVID-19 vaccine available in the United States.
Keeping Princeton area residents up to date on vaccines has been a constant effort for local physicians, nurses, and public health professionals, DiFerdinando said, adding, “The Princeton Health Department, under the leadership of Jeff Grosser, continues to offer convenient vaccination events.”
DiFerdinando raised further concerns about individuals’ neglect of other vaccines and essential health measures during the pandemic. “There are reports that other vaccinations —those of school age children, those for adults (pneumonia, flu, tetanus, whooping cough) are lagging,” he said. “All preventive health services that were being done before the pandemic need to get back ‘online,’ like vaccinations, cancer screenings, routine check-ups. It’s a pain to play catch-up, but we need to encourage others and ourselves to take care of ourselves.”
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the WHO reported last week that approximately 25 million children worldwide missed routine vaccinations in 2021, the first time the average global childhood immunization rate for 11 diseases, including measles, has dropped in more than 30 years.
Mercer County is hosting a COVID-19 vaccine clinic for children from 6 months to 5 years old on Thursday, July 28 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at CURE Arena, 81 Hamilton Avenue in Trenton. Also on July 28, the Princeton Health Department will he holding a COVID-19 vaccine clinic in the Princeton Shopping Center courtyard from 6 to 8 p.m.
DiFerdinando said that “we can’t vaccinate our way out of this particular pandemic, due to the amazing mutation ability that the SARS-CoV-2 virus continues to show,” but he re-emphasized the value of vaccines along with cautionary health measures.
“To really beat this pandemic we need a sustained period of low transmission to ‘control the fire,’” he said. “Only continued hand washing, cough covering, keeping your distance if infected, and appropriate mask wearing can do that. Vaccinations help control spread and prevent disability and deaths; our other actions have to defeat the pandemic.”