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Karen Mansfield/Observer-Reporter

Karen Mansfield/Observer-Reporter

Washington Health System President and CEO Brook Ward in a photo from May

Washington Health System President and CEO Brook Ward on Friday urged the public to get the COVID-19 vaccination as the delta variant continues to spread across the country, including Southwestern Pennsylvania.

“The No. 1 way to protect yourself, absolutely, is to get vaccinated, if you haven’t already,” said Ward during a monthly update.

Washington and Greene counties both are experiencing substantial spread of the virus. Fayette County remains in moderate level of community spread.

Ward said that positivity rate had hovered for several months at about 1 1/2%, but in the last 14 days has jumped to 3.4%.

“That is concerning,” said Ward.

Additionally, Washington Health System, which in recent months had averaged about three COVID-19 patients, saw the number of patients climb to nine last Saturday. This past Thursday, the number of hospitalized patients was six.

“It’s too early to call it a surge or a spike, it’s too early to call it a trend. We’ll monitor it over the next couple of weeks,” said Ward. “But I think what we’re seeing is, there is absolutely an increase in COVID in our community, and that’s resulting in more people in our hospital beds.”

Ward said that over the past two weeks, about 60% of the COVID patients admitted have not been vaccinated, while 40% have been fully vaccinated.

But the COVID-19 vaccines, Ward said, significantly reduced the severity of the illness in those breakthrough cases.

“All of the people who have been fully vaccinated have not been as sick and have not needed to go to the ICU,” he said.

Ward said the demand for COVID-19 vaccinations has declined precipitously in the area, resulting in the closing of WHS’s three mass vaccination clinic sites in late July.

In Washington County, only 50% of residents are fully vaccinated, while in Greene County, the figure is 38.4%. In Fayette County, roughly 42.5% of people are fully vaccinated.

Vaccination is still the best precaution against the virus, Ward said.

“I would highly encourage you to (get vaccinated). It is the No. 1 safe and effective way to prevent yourself from getting COVID, and if you do get COVID, prevent yourself from getting extremely sick or even dying,” said Ward. “It’s what you can do to protect yourself and your family.”

Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccines are available at 11 of WHS’s primary care offices in Washington and Greene counties, by appointment.

The vaccines are also available at dozens of other locations throughout the counties.

“If you want it and you haven’t gotten it, it’s easy to get,” Ward said.

He also encouraged people to wear masks.

“That would apply to people who are vaccinated and unvaccinated,” said Ward. “If you’re worried about the numbers going up, get vaccinated, but at the very least, wear a mask in public to protect yourself, and remember, even if it’s not mandatory, you can still wear the mask.”

Ward noted there currently is no mandate in Pennsylvania for students in grades kindergarten through 12 to wear face masks in school, despite the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s recommendation that all individuals over the age of 2 wear a mask in public indoor places, regardless of vaccination status. Locally, schools are making their own decisions regarding mask wearing.

He also noted that some businesses who had eliminated mask mandates are reinstating those policies, and pointed out at least two Pittsburgh restaurants that are requiring patrons to show proof of vaccination.

“How many businesses will reinstitute mask mandates, or even vaccination proof going forward, we’re not sure,” said Ward. “But we would encourage you to respect them. They’re not putting those rules in place to insult you or upset you, they’re doing it to protect you, their staff and the community.”

Health care organizations, including WHS, are still requiring all employees, patients, and visitors to wear masks at all times in their facilities, in compliance with CDC and state Department of Health guidelines.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to formally approve Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine in upcoming weeks, and Ward said he hopes the formal approval will encourage those who have been hesitant to get the vaccine to go ahead and get vaccinated.

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