My Turn: COVID vaccines to the rescue?

For the Monitor
Published: 2/5/2021 6:30:15 AM

The advent of the state’s COVID vaccine program has brought some sense of relief as we now have the means to bring this pandemic to an end.

However, with the almost daily news blurbs about vaccination and delivery delays, inadequate supplies, vaccines from other companies becoming available, on top of the dizzying amount of information on the arrival of new more virulent strains, it is easy to feel overwhelmed.

With vaccines, we should remain hopeful that things will start to improve. It is important, nevertheless, to understand that vaccines by themselves cannot bring about the return to normalcy anytime soon.

In New Hampshire, the risk of contracting COVID-19 has increased dramatically since September. Currently, our state residents are at the highest level of risk – “extremely high” – for contracting COVID-19. In fact, nine of the state’s 10 counties are at an extremely high risk level. Extremely high risk is if more than 640 cases per 100,000 people were reported during the past two weeks by the organization Resolve to Save Lives, which is an initiative of the global public health organization Vital Strategies and the New York Times.

While these vaccines dramatically lower one’s risk of contracting moderate or severe disease, there are a few important points to keep in mind. While there is little doubt that getting vaccinated protects each of us over and above physical measures like masks and social distancing, the notion of herd immunity is predicated on a certain percentage of people having immunity. Herd immunity aims to reduce the transmissibility of the virus so that an infected person cannot spread it to another person. The percent of the population needed to achieve herd immunity is not precisely known but is estimated by medical experts to be about 80% of the population.

As of the end of January, New Hampshire has vaccinated 7.2% of its residents with the first dose and 2% with the second, which is about the same percentage for the entire U.S. population at 7.6% and 1.7% for the first and second doses, respectively. These percentages show that about 80% of the vaccinations are used in the first shot of the two-shot regimen.

Recently, the Biden administration has raised its vaccination goal to 1.5 million shots a day. Performing some simple math on the target 80% U.S. population (approximately 243 million people) to get their first shot, it will take about 200 more days before everyone will have received their first shot, which brings us to mid-July and another 5½ to 6 months, or mid-January 2022, until 80% of the population will have received both shots.

So, what does all this mean? The simple answer is the more the virus spreads before the vaccines take effect, the fewer deaths we can prevent. With the presence of more virulent strains, the rate of infection and death could dramatically increase. There is an understandable worry that these new mutated strains will defeat the effectiveness of the current vaccines. While there is some loss of protection, they still offer the needed protection. We must understand that mutations that give rise to variants are a natural result of replication. They result from the fact that the enzymes involved in the replication of viruses, like coronavirus, have an inherent error rate. These mutations confer the ability of viruses to survive our bodily defenses. One only has to remember the challenge of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that plague our hospitals or drug-resistant HIV strains. Therapeutic manufacturers know this fact and consequently are constantly making new, more effective drugs and vaccines.

So what can we expect? The major vaccine maker Pfizer in collaboration with researchers at the School of Public Health at Columbia University estimated that if the current U.S. restrictions remain in place until late July, COVID cases will rise from the current 26 million cases to 158 million or if restrictions are lifted this month, cases will rise to 188 million.

And where do we go from here? That is where we can fall prey to the same challenges we encountered before vaccines were available and when physical measures like avoiding people and wearing masks were the only measure that could control the pandemic.

Until we get close to having immunity in 80% of our population, the numbers will continue to climb. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that if 95% of the population wears a mask now, we could prevent over 90,000 additional deaths against even the virulent viral strains by the end of March of this year.

The solution is not what we do as individuals but as a society, and that means we have to look out for others as well. The alternative is everyone is only out for themselves, which is basically anarchy. Our nation has aspired to be inclusive and that means understanding and caring for everyone.

(Walter King is a virologist and lives in Dover.)


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