Coronavirus burning through low-vaccinated Breathitt County; ‘It’s like they’re blind … I don’t understand,’ local health official says

A large white sign on poles on grass in Jackson, Ky. with small American flags taped to both poles. The sign is written in red spray paint and says "God Bless our Doctors and Nurses and ALL Health Workers and ALL People Working

A sign in Jackson (Photos by Jamie Lucke)

By Jamie Lucke
Kentucky Health News

JACKSON, Ky. – William Sizemore fights Covid-19 from the front lines in Breathitt County; he worries that “like the drug epidemic,” no family there will escape the coronavirus – unless more of his neighbors get vaccinated.

In recent weeks, the virus has burned through the county’s population of 13,000 at a faster pace, fueled by the more contagious Delta variant, and is infecting younger people.

“Unfortunately, we are seeing an increase in the number of children testing positive for Covid-19 that are presenting with severe symptoms in our emergency department,” said Susie Robinette, chief nursing officer at the Kentucky River Medical Center in Jackson.

Like hospitals across Kentucky, Robinette said the 55-bed hospital is under stress from the Delta surge.

The hospital reports 12 Covid-19 patients were hospitalized at the beginning of this week and none had been fully vaccinated.

“We are asking our community to get vaccinated to help slow the spread of the virus,” Robinette said.  “This effort will allow our hospital to maintain proper capacity to continue caring for our families, friends and neighbors.”

She also recommends: “Wear your mask, wash your hands and maintain physical distancing when possible.”

Children under 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccine, and only 36 percent of Breathitt residents have been fully vaccinated, compared with 48% statewide and 52% nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among eligible residents, 12 and older, 42% are fully vaccinated compared with 61% nationally.

“When it got politicized, that hurt public health. I don’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican,” Sizemore said, because the virus doesn’t care, either.

As the Breathitt County Health Department’s environmentalist, Sizemore is responsible for preparedness. He has been urging people to protect themselves and each other by taking the free shots available at the health department, pharmacies and Juniper Health.

In response to the Delta surge, there has been an uptick in people coming to the health department to receive the free vaccines, including more children 12 and older, said Sizemore. “We’re chipping away, just not hard enough.”

On Aug. 23, the Pfizer vaccine became the first of the three vaccines to advance from emergency authorization to full approval by the Food and Drug Administration.

Derrick Hamilton, D.O.

FDA approval removes one objection raised by the unvaccinated. Ever since the immunizations became available last winter, Dr. Derrick Hamilton has been assuring patients they could trust the process and the vaccines.

“Just because it was done at such speed does not mean it did not go through the same level of scrutiny,” Hamilton said. “It has been rigorously studied. Hundreds of millions of doses have been administered. The science speaks for itself.”

Hamilton is chief executive officer and chief medical officer of Juniper Health, a Jackson-based nonprofit that provides primary medical and dental care and other health services in Breathitt, Elliott, Lee, Morgan and Wolfe counties.

Hamilton calls the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed, which helped speed the vaccines to the public, “a testament to American greatness, on par with the Apollo program” that sent humans to the moon. Vaccination, in his opinion, is “the patriotic thing to do.”

What does he say to patients who have misgivings about the vaccine? “I tell them I’ve taken it. My family has taken it. Other family members of mine have taken it. Then I go through reasons that they are reluctant to take it and try to counter that with facts and open up the conversation to try to combat disinformation.”

In the five counties served by Juniper Health, vaccination rates vary from 26% in Elliott to 40% in Wolfe.

“Covid is an ongoing threat to the health and well-being of the patients of our service area,” said Hamilton. “The most effective tool we have medically to get this forest fire under control is widespread vaccination. I’ve had the vaccine. My family has had it. I advocate for it. It’s safe. It’s very effective at preventing death and severe illness.”

After Covid forced cancellation of a Breathitt County High School Bobcats football scrimmage against Bell County, the health department’s Sizemore warned in the Jackson-Breathitt County Times-Voice, “For those not vaccinated, get ready. It’s coming for you.”

A sign in Jackson advertises testing.

Recent statistics bear out his fears. The county’s incidence of new cases for the week ending Aug. 29 was 136 per 100,000 residents, 38 percent more than the statewide rate of 92 per 100,000 population. The CDC reports Kentucky’s highest rates were in Clay, Bell and Perry counties, where the rates per 100,000 were 270, 235 and 212, respectively.

(All three counties together don’t have close to 100,000 people, but the standard measure allows comparisons across a wide range of populations.)

The state reports 1,333 cases in Breathitt County during the 18 months of the Covid-19 pandemic. The state’s numbers slightly lag those of the local health department. Either way, about one in 10 residents has been identified as infected.

Two recent deaths, yet to be confirmed in state data, will likely bring the county’s Covid death toll to 14, said Sizemore, who has been surprised at how many people resist taking a potentially life-saving shot.

“They see people dying. These are hard numbers. … It’s like they’re blind. I don’t understand.”

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