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With COVID statistics still concerning, local health experts weigh in on the safety of gatherings

SALISBURY — As COVID-19 remains a threat for Rowan Countians, local health experts are weighing in on safety measures for large gatherings and events.

Dr. Abayomi Agbebi, medical director of infectious disease at Novant Health Rowan Medical Center, has spent the better part of two years working with the Health Department, school district and nursing homes to help coordinate COVID-19 response and protocols. Agbebi has also been able to see firsthand how the virus has impacted patients at the hospital.

“Thankfully we are seeing a slow downward trend in admissions, but we’re still having a lot of sick people coming in,” Agbebi said. “For those that work in the hospital, there is a cognitive difference between how bad we can see someone in the hospital being sick versus what we see when we go out into the community. That disconnect is really hard because we can’t bring people in to see what the inside of a hospital looks like with COVID.”

Even though Agbebi is more familiar than most with the threat the virus poses, the doctor said that life should not come to a halt even as case numbers and deaths are still concerning.

“The goal is not to stop life from happening; it’s just to find ways to keep it safe,” Agbebi said. “I think that’s what we need to be shooting for, not closing down and saying you can’t do anything. I think people, from a mental health standpoint, are frustrated and can’t cope with that. We’ve got to find ways to make those events safe. It’s not a binary choice where it’s yes or no. It’s more of a case of how you can make your events successful and safe at the same time.”

That doesn’t mean canceling every large event. Instead, it’s important to determine how they can be held as safely as possible. To do that, Agbebi encourages event planners to craft their gatherings with several factors in mind. 

The first element that should come into play, Agbebi said, is the rate of transmission in the community where the event is being held. Like almost every county in North Carolina, Rowan County is currently listed by the Centers for Disease Control as having a high transmission rate

The rate of community transmission, Agbebi said, should influence how an event is held. There are general precautions that can make an event less risky, perhaps the most important of which is holding an event in the open air.

“If you can have events outdoors and keep it from being crowded, I think you can have a safe event,” Agbebi said.

Even when a gathering is outdoors, requiring masks and promoting social distancing is important, Agbebi said. He said encouraging people to move around at an outdoor event adds yet another layer of protection.

“Because of the delta variant, being outside, while it is less risky than being indoors, outdoors in crowded environments is risky because of the amount of virus in our community,” Agbebi said. “Right now test positivity rates are about 20%, which means if you have a crowd of 100 people, we’re looking at about five people that we know of that have the virus.”

The vaccination rates of the population attending an event is also important to consider, Agbebi said. Rowan County Health Director Alyssa Harris pointed to the Lollapalooza music festival in downtown Chicago as an example. While the festival packed thousands of people in a park, vaccinations or negative COVID-19 tests were required. The cases resulting from the event were fractional, Harris said, compared to the number of people who attended. The music festival was not declared a super-spreader event.

Even with multiple layers of precautions in place, there’s no such thing as a COVID-proof gathering. The goal, Harris said, is to get to a point where people evaluate the risks of attending an event or gathering and use their best judgement to mitigate them.

“I think we need to get to that place where people understand, ‘Hey, I am engaging in a riskier event, I need to take precautions to make sure that I am not contributing to the spread of COVID-19.’ When people do that, the safer events can be,” Harris said.

Harris said some events such as the Cheerwine Festival and Pops at the Post proved to be too risky even with precautions.

“Cheerwine Festival took that into account that our community was not in a good place for being able to double our population and bring all these outside individuals into the center of Salisbury,” Harris said. “I think they really took that into account knowing we had that massive increase of not only COVID cases, but also in children and seeing that increase at the start of the school year. All of those things were factored into that decision. The Health Department absolutely supported that, both for that and Pops at the Post.”

Harris understands the confusion created when some events are canceled and others continue to take place. Just because an event like a crowded football game is happening, Harris said, doesn’t mean it’s safe.

While the Cheerwine Festival was called off, the Rowan County Fair opened this weekend with COVID-19 protocols in place. The Autumn Jubilee, an event that typically draws thousands to Dan Nicholas Park, is scheduled to take place next weekend. Harris said the Health Department has worked with the county to make the Autumn Jubilee as safe as possible. The jubilee, an outdoor only event, has eliminated many activities that put people in close contact and has spaced vendors out further apart.

Ultimately, Harris said, a higher vaccination rate will mean that more events can be held without as much concern.

“My recommendations are the things we keep saying but bear repeating is to get vaccinated and protect yourself,” Harris said. “It ranges from 88-96% where those folks in hospital right now are unvaccinated and those folks are severely ill. There is a way to prevent that severe illness and that’s by getting vaccinated. The more people who are vaccinated, the safer these events can be.”

Vaccines are readily available at many locations throughout Rowan County. To find a shot near you, visit www.vaccines.gov.

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