As COVID-19 cases gradually increase — and with locally confirmed cases of the Delta variant — state and local health officials are urging residents to take appropriate precautions.

Specifically, says Knox County Health Officer Dr. Alan Stewart, “get vaccinated.”

The Delta mutation of the coronavirus left a trail of death across India and has now been found in more than 75 countries, and it accounts for roughly 40% of new positive cases in many parts of the U.S.

Though the mutation does not seem to be any more virulent than other strains, it has proven to be much more contagious than the original virus as well as the B117 strain, which originated in Britain last winter.

According to Stewart, the R-value of the original strain of virus was between 3 and 4, and the B117 strain had an R-value of 5.

The R number is a way of rating any disease’s ability to spread. Seasonal influenza, by comparison, typically has an R-value of less than 1.5.

“But this one — the Delta — it has an R-value of 7,” Stewart said, noting that if one unmasked person infected with the strain walked into a room, they would likely infect 7 others in that space.

Despite significant concerns about the new strain, the health officer says those who have received a COVID-19 vaccine are fairing well as the pandemic lags on.

“Roughly 99.5% of COVID deaths are unvaccinated people, so get the vaccine,” he urged.

Though Knox County’s caseload of the virus has remained relatively low, health officials across the state are concerned by the steady increase of infections in recent weeks.

Early this week, Knox County saw 21 new cases of the virus in a single day, and while a handful of those recorded on the state’s COVID-19 dashboard were part of a backlog, the numbers are still cause for concern.

Stewart says the current trend is beginning to mimic the summer of 2020 patterns.

“This is exactly what happened last year. We went from several days of zero new infections and then single-day cases shot up suddenly — often from people coming back from Florida vacations and Fourth of July celebrations,” he said.

The number of new cases has Stewart concerned about a return to community spread.

“The numbers tell me we’re once again having community spread,” he said.

Despite some community spread, the health officer says most recent cases stem from outbreaks at a local day camp and a daycare, highlighting the vulnerability of children — those under 12 being too young to receive the vaccinate and those 12 and older reliant on parental permission.

“The new Delta variant is not as likely to cause the loss of taste and smell. Those symptoms were kind of a slam dunk letting people know they had COVID, but this variant presents as more cold-like symptoms in children,” said Stewart.

Too, he says, kids may be prone to more serious illness with the new variant.

“We just don’t know yet,” he said.

Stewart says that’s one reason he is advocating that local schools continue to require face masks when students return to classrooms this fall.

Though Knox County has spent the better part of four months in the blue on the Indiana COVID-19 dashboard map, there are concerns — particularly as neighboring Gibson County’s case numbers have substantially increased.

The state dashboard map uses a 2-metric scoring system to determine the color-coded advisory level of each county, with blue being least severe and red indicating the most severe threat of COVID-19 infection.

Gibson County, with 50 new cases in the past week, and a positivity rate of nearly 17%, the county has been flagged by the state for the large number of weekly cases attributed, in part, to large gatherings.

Such a surge is something Stewart hopes Knox County will avoid.

“People appear to be letting all precautions to go by the wayside, but I would continue to mask in grocery stores and other confined spaces,” said Stewart.

The health officer urges those who are unvaccinated to visit the health department to be vaccinated against COVID-19, particularly before school begins again.

For more information about the COVID-19 vaccine, residents are urged to call the health department at 812-882-8080.

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