Right now, less than five people a day test positive for COVID-19 in the New River Health District.

The low number is a result of a slowly growing group of people who are receiving the coronavirus vaccine, said Noelle Bissell, health director for the district. About 40 percent of the district’s population now is fully vaccinated, she said Monday during a meeting with news media.

The majority of people who are hospitalized or are seriously ill with COVID-19 are those who are unvaccinated, she said.

“The vaccines are all very safe and very effective, and it shows in our numbers right now,” she said. “We would always encourage people to get vaccinated over taking the chance of natural infection.”

The vaccines, so far, appear to be effective against the Delta variant, and for that reason, people who are vaccinated do not have to wear face coverings in public, Bissell added.

Those who are not vaccinated, however, should wear masks.

“That’s mainly to protect themselves,” Bissell said. “It’s also to protect those around them.”

She addressed several questions about new mask guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stating that teachers and students who are not vaccinated should wear masks when in school. The decision to enforce this guidance is up to individual school districts, Bissell said.

Even so, “given how protective the vaccines are, I think it’s very reasonable that we follow that guidance,” she said.

This guidance may encourage more people to be vaccinated, she said.

So far, anyone 12 and older may receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Bissell said she doesn't expect that the vaccines will be approved for those younger than 12 until at least the fall. When approved, the health district will work with schools to offer vaccines to these age groups.

The district also plans to offer vaccines to international students returning to area universities, including Virginia Tech, along with any other college students who need vaccines. The district also will continue to be involved in case investigations and contract tracing for university students.

According to a newly launched dashboard on Virginia Tech’s website, 36 percent of students have been vaccinated. The university requires all students to receive a COVID-19 vaccine and upload their verification information by Aug. 6 to be eligible for enrollment.

Bissell said it is too early to worry about the low percentages of Virginia Tech students vaccinated as of now. Some may be waiting to receive second doses, while others may be procrastinating in submitting their vaccine verification information, she said.

“I think it’s a little bit premature to assume that less than 50 percent are vaccinated,” she said. “We will know in the coming weeks.”

 — Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone

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