Contra Costa County health officials on Tuesday used their regular COVID-19 briefing time before the Board of Supervisors to implore — sometimes emotionally — people to get vaccinated.
County health services director Anna Roth said COVID-19 just surpassed the 1918 Spanish Flu as the deadliest pandemic in U.S. history. She said one in 500 Americans have now died from COVID-19, more than 675,000 in all, with a current rising rate of 1,900 deaths per day.
“In Contra Costa County, we have 135 people hospitalized with COVID-19, and 54 in the critical care units,” Roth said. “And while the peak of the summer-long surge seems to have passed, the county’s daily case rate remains as high as it was in February.”
With the more powerful delta variant now the dominant version of COVID-19 in Contra Costa County, Roth said vaccination is the only way to get a handle on the virus.
“The majority of the people who are hospitalized or who have died in our county from COVID-19 in our county are the unvaccinated,” Roth said. “Since Dec. 15, the unvaccinated residents have accounted for 95.4 percent of our county’s deaths.”
Deputy Health Director Erika Jenssen, a communicable disease expert, told the board even with education, health orders, isolation, contract tracing, travel restrictions, masking and testing, the message still isn’t getting through to enough people.
Then came the vaccines, which Jenssen said have been around since nearly the beginning of this country, when Continental Army troops serving under George Washington were vaccinated against smallpox, which she pointed out is no longer a problem, thanks to vaccinations.
“We, as humans, have eliminated smallpox,” Jenssen said. “It no longer causes any disease or death anywhere on our planet; this is only because of vaccines.”
Jenssen emotionally recalled overseeing the first outbreak of COVID-19 in a residential care home in Orinda in March 2020, watching residents get sick and die, before the vaccine was available.
“These were heartbreaking and tragic and incredibly scary times,” she said.
Jenssen equated people refusing vaccines to people who refuse to leave their homes when firefighters try evacuating them as a wildfire bears down.
“Misinformation spreads because people maybe talk to the neighbor, maybe hear it on social media. They don’t listen to the professionals,” Jenssen said. “How do you deal with that? A fire is coming, the experts know people have a tiny window to evacuate safely.”
“Right now, if you wait to get vaccinated, it’s like fighting a wildfire with your garden hose. Chances are you’ve let that window of opportunity close to protect yourselves.”
County health officer Chris Farnitano said the more contagious and severe delta variant now accounts for more than 99 percent of COVID-19 cases in Contra Costa. He said vaccine misinformation is killing people.
“The vaccines reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection by 70 to 95 percent; they reduce the risk of hospitalization by over 90 percent, and they reduce the risk of dying from COVID by over 90 percent,” Farnitano said. “Not only that, the vaccinations also reduce the chances of spreading COVID.”
Sergio Urcuyo, the medical director at Contra Costa Regional Medical Center, told the board medical workers’ exhaustion is now compounded by the frustration of knowing so many of their patients refused vaccinations.
“We are all more exhausted this time around because the sick patients in the hospital are all unvaccinated,” Urcuyo said. “We watch patients suffer and die all the while knowing we have a tool that can prevent it. This is a different brand of fatigue than it was for the first few waves, and it crushes deeper than the fatigue you get from the lack of sleep. It makes you question why you sacrifice what you do.”