Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT – Summer activities are in full swing and so is coronavirus as it moves through the population, vaccinated and unvaccinated alike.
The ability of vaccines to prevent hospitalizations and deaths is not in doubt. But that’s increasingly looking like a temporary hedge as a trend of reduced ability to prevent infection and sickness continues.
In the July 16 to July 23 time period, 169 more local COVID-19 cases were confirmed. Forty-four cases were confirmed in a single day, July 23, the highest single day count since May 13.
Alarmingly, the county’s testing positivity rate increased to 11.83 percent, which the county describes as “the highest rate at any point in the last 12 months.”
Surges are happening throughout the state and the U.S., making vaccination an emergency response.
But there’s confusion about the dynamics of vaccine protection.
During a July 21 news conference, Humboldt County Health Officer Dr. Ian Hoffman repeated what’s become a common catch phrase – that COVID-19 is “a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
But what he said next contradicts that premise.
The quickly-spreading Delta variant strain is “also being seen in the fully-vaccinated” and “many counties have reported that as much as 50 percent or more of their Delta variant cases are in the fully-vaccinated.”
Hoffman suspects “that will also hold true” locally and “what we are seeing is a higher potential for the Delta variant to infect the fully-vaccinated.”
He added, “So those who are fully-vaccinated are spreading it both to vaccinated people and to other fully-vaccinated people.”
The Delta variant made up about 25 percent of the county’s COVID-19 cases in June and “it’s likely very much more now,” said Hoffman.
The worrisome development confounds the supposed near-perfect effectiveness that public health officials touted after clinical trials of mRNA vaccine ended late last year.
Those trials found that the vaccine was 94 percent effective at preventing infection and symptoms. But the finding is irrelevant now, as the virus is evolving into newer, more formidable strains like the Delta variant.
“It’s giving pause for sure, around the state and around the country,” Hoffman said, noting that California counties are reeling back declarations that vaccinated people don’t need to mask up.
Hoffman said 20 counties are now recommending universal indoor masking and by the end of the week, the number rose to 25 – including Humboldt.
The “bigger concern” is still for the unvaccinated, however, as vaccine protection against hospitalization and death is holding for now.
Hoffman said hospital capacity is being eyed as a trigger for reinstating previous restrictions.
The need for booster shots is apparent and the results of studies on it were released late last week.
Israel is a vanguard of coronavirus research, testing and response and its Ministry of Health found that a full course of mRNA vaccine is now only about 40 percent effective at preventing symptomatic infection.
Some have interpreted the study’s finding to mean that vaccine protection against a strain like Delta diminishes significantly after six months.
Asked about booster shots, Hoffman said more data is needed to recommend it. But so-called breakthrough cases are often symptomatic now.
“All of them, actually – all of our breakthrough cases have been symptomatic,” said Hoffman, clarifying that applies to cases caused by the recently-emerged Alpha and Delta variants.
Breakthrough case symptoms include fever, chills and coughing but in most instances they’re not serious enough to lead to hospitalization.
The variant trend continues, however. A strain called the Lambda variant was first detected in Peru last year and slowly gained momentum. It is now the dominant strain there and one of its mutations is especially worrisome.
A spike protein deletion in the Lambda strain is believed to interfere with immune system recognition, which is key to vaccine effectiveness.
Last week’s mass of cases brought the county’s total to 4,897. There were seven new COVID-19 hospitalizations, bringing that total to 225. There were no new COVID-19 deaths last week and the total remained at 53.
The county’s percentage of vaccinated residents was stagnant at 49 percent.