With delta variant on the rise, Sussex has some of state's lowest vaccination rates

With delta variant on the rise, Sussex has some of state's lowest vaccination rates
Lisa Allen Conaway of Greenwood gets a COVID vaccine at a Bookmobile event in Ellendale. Photo courtesy of Beebe Healthcare

Note: An earlier version of this story contained a statistical error that has been corrected. On average, 13.6 percent of people getting COVID tests in Sussex were positive on July 30; by Aug. 12, it was up to an average of 22.4 percent.  

On a scorching hot day last week in Seaford, the waiting room was quiet at the Shipley State Service Center. But the center’s free COVID vaccines had brought out one person: Markayla Paige of Bridgeville.

She admitted to nervousness about the vaccine, but said a 16-year-old cousin recently tested positive for COVID.

“I thought I’d be on the safe side,” she said.

Her mother had come to Shipley for her vaccine recently, Paige said, “and she said everything was just fine, so here I am.”

Most Delawareans ripped off their masks in profound relief on July 13 when Gov. John Carney lifted restrictions. Vaccination numbers were rising, and COVID cases had declined.

It had been an exhausting year of pandemic. Unfortunately, it wasn’t over.

Only a month later, the infamous delta variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 is surging around the country and has become the dominant strain in Delaware. And the governor, in an ominous sign, has started up his regular COVID press conferences again.  

The spread of the delta variant has state officials calling urgently for increased vaccinations and pointing to western Sussex County as an area of concern. Sussex has rising case numbers and hospitalizations and some of the lowest vaccination numbers in the state.

When it comes to vaccines, Sussex is a county of striking contrasts. The beaches boast the highest percentages of vaccination in the state, but only a short drive west, the numbers plummet.

As of Friday, Aug. 13, in the Lewes zip code, state data showed the vaccination rate at 74.5 percent of eligible people fully vaccinated. It was 73 percent just to the south in the Rehoboth Beach area.

On the other side of the county map, a swath of low vaccination rates runs the length of western Sussex from the Delmar area (32.6 percent), up to the zip code around Greenwood (32.9 percent, or less than half that of Lewes). The low-vax zone continues into southern Kent County, with the Harrington area at 38.7 percent, and the rural area west of Dover, the 19953 zip code, the lowest percentage in the state at 32.3 percent.

That has state officials concerned about the virus gaining new strength and spreading at higher rates. The governor at his Aug. 5 press conference said he didn’t want new restrictions, but mentioned them as a possibility.

“With an infectious disease, the longer it stays within the community, and there’s transmission of it or high transmission of it, it does give the virus the opportunity to mutate more,” Lisa Henry, director of community health for the state Department of Public Health, told The Delaware Independent. “... The longer it stays circulating, the more opportunistic it can become.”

Why the vaccine reluctance?

Sussex Countians have a reputation for independence, and in the case of vaccines they are again to some extent taking their own path. Mistrust of government is also a commonly voiced sentiment in the area.

But Sussex is not alone in pushing back. The northern part of the state, too, has seen recent protests against ChristianaCare mandating the vaccine for employees, although it should be noted that's a protest against vaccine mandates, not the vaccine per se.

All through the pandemic, Gov. Carney faced fierce backlash in some quarters over the state's COVID-19 restrictions. He suggested at his recent press conference that some of the opposition to vaccination in southern Delaware is political.

The Independent has not been able to confirm which party the virus is a member of.

State Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, a Republican whose district reaches across the middle of Sussex County from west to east, said “For me, vaccination is a choice. The availability to get vaccinated is there.”

He’s supportive of those who get the vaccine, he said, and respects those who don’t, and said information is being made available to people about where to get vaccinated.

“Really, it’s up to the individuals.”

Henry said one objection raised by some is that the vaccine is government control, an idea she dismissed.

While Gov. Carney recently mandated vaccines for state employees and health care workers, there is no mandate for state residents at this point.

Henry also said a lot of people are not an absolute “no” on the vaccine, but want to wait.  

Pettyjohn said he thought people waiting until COVID-19 vaccines get final FDA approval, instead of the emergency use authorization, was a big factor. “I have a feeling once we do get the final approval … that you’re going to see a significant uptick in the number of people getting vaccinated.”

Henry emphasized the time is now to get the vaccine and urged people to seek out reliable sources to educate themselves, perhaps by contacting their physician, and “make the best decision that is for them and their community, to protect themselves and their community.”

Bill Chasanov, an infectious disease specialist and head of the COVID-19 response for Beebe Healthcare, also offered reassurances about the safety of the vaccine.

“Before they were even able to receive an emergency use authorization status, they had to have clinical trials to show that they were effective, but also to show that they were safe, so from a safety standpoint, they appear just as safe as any other vaccine or medication that we have on the market,” he said.

He noted that millions of people around the world have now received the vaccine.  

“I try to encourage people that these vaccines, while it sounds like that the Pfizer vaccine, for instance, has only been around —” he stopped and counted “— eight months if I’m doing my math right, actually the trial had been going on for quite some time … so the Pfizer vaccine, like the Moderna vaccine, has been studied for well over a year at this point.”

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The experts make their case

It’s true that medical care for COVID patients is better now than it was at the beginning of the pandemic, but Henry said the renewed spread is still an urgent concern.

“Community transmission is still high,” she said. “And you can see that in positive cases that are happening in western Sussex as well as throughout the state.”

Chasanov echoed that, saying there are improved treatments, but “I don’t want to give people this false sense of hope that we don’t have significant or severely ill people with these infections.”

He, along with state officials, also emphasized that unvaccinated people are at a much greater risk than vaccinated ones. “The majority of those (hospitalized cases) are unvaccinated; I think that’s a really important point.”

The number of deaths has increased in recent weeks, Henry pointed out, as well as the number of hospitalizations, and even for those who don’t die or get hospitalized, there are long term effects researchers are learning about.

And although a few people who are vaccinated do still get COVID, Henry said, “what we find is that (the vaccinated) have very much less severe disease.”

Sussex County, especially the western part, is more rural and spread out, and so people aren’t packed together in the same way they are in Wilmington. But, Henry said, “That does not mean people don’t congregate.” People will still walk into the store and take the chance of encountering people who may or may not be vaccinated.

She doesn’t want to get to the point, she said, where everyone has to see the effects of COVID for themselves before they are convinced to take it seriously.

“That's a lot of tragedy along the way, if people had to experience it, or we see more deaths from it, and we're really trying to prevent that in saving lives,” she said.

A look at the COVID numbers in Sussex County

During the governor’s press conference Aug. 5, Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of the Division of Public Health, noted that while numbers are not where they were during the surge last fall, it’s still helpful to see where they are growing.

These are some of the trends in Sussex: On July 30, there were 12 people hospitalized with COVID in the county, per state data. On Aug. 12, that number was 35.

On average, 13.6 percent of people getting COVID tests in Sussex were positive on July 30; by Aug. 12, it was up to an average of 22.4 percent.

The number of reported cases mirrors that trend. On July 30, 33 new cases were confirmed. On Aug. 12, it was 78, more than double.

Where to find vaccines if you’d like to get one

Lauren Collins, a family nurse practitioner for the Department of Public Health, said when the vaccines first came out, they were administering 30 to 60 a day. “We were just kind of cranking them out as fast as we were able to receive it.”

The numbers have dropped off a lot since then, she said, but have picked up since the increase in the delta variant. They sometimes do around 10 shots a day.

A lot of younger people who come to the clinic for other services are very hesitant to get the vaccine when it’s offered, she said.

She said she wanted people to know the vaccines are safe, effective, and readily available. They’re free and available at a number of state sites without an appointment.

DPH walk-in vaccine sites in Sussex County


M-F, 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and 1:15 p.m. to 4 p.m.

  • Shipley Public Health Clinic

350 Virginia Ave., Seaford 19973

  • Riverwalk Public Health Clinic

253 NE Front St., Milford, 19963

  • Adams Public Health Clinic

546 S. Bedford St., Georgetown, 19947

Freestanding vaccination site

  • Georgetown Plaza Shopping Center

19 Georgetown Plaza, Georgetown, 19947

Monday, Wednesday, Friday: 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., and 1:15 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Tuesday to Thursday: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Read up on the vaccines

The Centers for Disease Control has information available on COVID-19 vaccines and their side effects.

The agency says that while there can be severe side effects, they are rare. Here is more information on those cases.

The Delaware Department of Public Health also has a page addressing vaccine rumors.

See detailed Sussex County coronavirus data here.

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