Riley County Health Department director Julie Gibbs says the county’s low vaccination rate and increasing number of active cases has led to the county becoming an emerging COVID-19 hotspot, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Gibbs, along with Riley County clinic supervisor Aryn Price, held a press conference Wednesday to address questions about the coronavirus and vaccinations locally. Officials have confirmed 108 active cases as of Wednesday, with 64 new cases of the virus in the past week.

That puts Riley County at a 7.91% infection rate over a 14-day average.

“We have identified 61 variants of concern, and of those 47 are the delta variant,” Gibbs said. “Of the 33 breakthrough cases we have identified so far, more than half have turned out to be the Delta variant.”

Price said the delta variant is 68% more transmissible from one person to another. She said the age range of people being infected with the variant is skewing younger than what county health officials saw in previous COVID-19 waves.

“Those people who are fully vaccinated who have tested positive for the delta variant are reporting very mild symptoms,” Price said.

There are currently nine people in Ascension Via Christi hospital who are positive for the virus. One person is in intensive care. Gibbs said, from what she can tell, the people who are hospitalized are not vaccinated, and she along with Price are encouraging people to get their vaccine and to not hesitate to ask health department officials about the vaccine’s effectiveness and safety.

Gibbs said she estimates the county vaccination rate to be around 50% for those who are eligible. The goal is 70% vaccination rate. Gibbs said the health department is hosting more remote clinics to “try and meet people where they are.” She said her staff put out surveys asking people why they are choosing to not get vaccinated; the answers range from concerns over vaccine safety to severity of side effects.

The health department is hosting a remote testing and vaccination clinic Friday at Redbud Estates from 4 p.m.-6 p.m. As an incentive, adults who get inoculated will receive a $25 grocery gift card. Children aged 12 and older who get a vaccine will receive free school supplies. Price said the need for incentives to get vaccinated highlights a need for more education on the subject.

“We often fear the unknown, so trying to get factual scientifically sound information out to the public is going to be key moving forward with our vaccination strategies,” Price said.

Gibbs said, especially with the start of school in August, maintaining health protocols is just as important as it was earlier this year. She said the Manhattan-Ogden School Board is meeting regularly with the medical advisory task force to stay updated on the virus situation.

“I know there’s been a lot of talk across the state about elementary schools in particular,” Gibbs said. “We do recommend that those who haven’t been vaccinated, which would be those elementary school kids who aren’t able to get vaccinated – we recommend that they wear a mask while inside, or if they’re outside and can’t maintain that physical distance.”

Gibbs said the option of reimplementing mask mandates for Manhattan and Riley County still exists.

“We want our vaccination rates to increase, and we of course want our case numbers to go down, but it’s certainly not off the table,” Gibbs said.