Officials offer COVID updates at Camden County town hall

Topics include booster shots and the Delta variant

Officials discussed a wide variety of COVID-related topics at an Aug. 18 Camden County town hall that included local officials and health representatives.

County Commissioner Jonathan Young started the meeting by reviewing county COVID data.

“Unfortunately, we are continuing to see the Delta variant increase its grip over our region,” he said. “Over the last seven days, we are averaging 75 new cases each day. The county infection rate right now is 1.3 percent. The test positivity rate has increased slightly to 5.3 percent. Additionally, hospitalization has increased by 23 percent in the last week.

“This pandemic is definitely not over.”

The commissioner urged people to get vaccinated and explained that while breakthrough cases are happening, vaccinated people are becoming infected at a much lower rate than the unvaccinated and are rarely hospitalized.

The panelists, who also included Caryelle Lasher, assistant public health coordinator;  Dr. Joseph Meloche, superintendent of Cherry Hill Public Schools; and Dr. Jennifer Khelil, senior vice-president and chief medical officer of Virtua Health NJ, also discussed the CDC’s (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recent recommendation for immuno-compromised people to get booster shots. Lasher explained that people in that category don’t always have the same response to the virus  as someone with a healthy immune system.

“We’re going to make sure you get that third shot to make sure you have the same chance at immunity as other individuals,” she added.

Lasher recommended that the immuno-compromised get the same shot as they did  before, either Moderna or Pfizer. The CDC anticipates that people who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will also need a booster shot, but haven’t explicitly made the recommendation yet. The list of people currently elligible for boosters can be found at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/recommendations/immuno.html.

Following the town hall, the CDC put out new guidelines recommending a booster shot for all Americans as soon as the week of Sept. 20 and eight months after an initial  second dose.

Khelil reported seeing more hospitalized adults and children in the past week than a few weeks ago, and confirmed Young’s statement that 99 percent of the patients, if not higher, are unvaccinated. Khelil also noted that there has been an uptick in children coming to the emergency department with upper respiratory illnesses who have had to be transferred to Philadelphia hospitals for higher level care.

“The Delta variant is here. We have seen people get very very sick very very quickly, and it’s something we need to have a very healthy respect for,” Khelil explained.

From there, the town hall conversation moved to the upcoming school year. Meloche acknowledged that the mask mandate has been polarizing for people, but made the district’s stance very clear: Everyone has to wear masks inside the schools. He also shared that thanks to federal funding, the Cherry Hill district will be able to make updates to its HVAC systems and add air purifiers to its buildings.

In his closing statement, Meloche urged parents not to put their kids in uncomfortable situations by opposing the mask mandates.

“As an adult, if you have an issue, contact the adults who work at the school and have that discussion separately,” he added.

Khelil noted that health systems are seeing higher rates of kids under the age of 18 with COVID, almost all of them unvaccinated.

“When you get to a point where we’re seeing children who have no choice in the matter and you’re telling them ‘Don’t wear a mask, you’re not getting vaccinated,’ and they end up in the hospital, it’s just wrong,” Young said.

“I can’t tell people and I won’t tell people, “You have to get vaccinated.’ It is your choice,” he added. ‘’But when your choice is affecting children, I tend to have a problem with it.”

Young cautioned people about getting their COVID information on social media and encouraged them to do their own research.

“The number one thing we can do is get vaccinated,” Khelil said.

To read more about booster shot recommendations, visit https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2021/s0818-covid-19-booster-shots.html

To watch the full town hall, visit  https://www.camdencounty.com/live/.