Dr. Voccio: Vaccine is safe, future infections likely in pockets

Note: It has been a while since the last COVID-19 update, and due to other pressing issues I have not kept track of numbers on a daily basis in a while. Check back next week for a more comprehensive update on figures since March. – KtE

For more than a year, the entire world has experienced lot of heartache, stress, anger and confusion. Polk County has been no stranger to those feelings, which in many continue despite the potential to solve the problem with an injection or two in the arm.

The uncertainty of the pandemic – unseen for more than 100 years at this scale around the globe – forced the world to a standstill for a while, but as the virus evolved so did the situation. Late last year, the miracle of the fast turnaround of research and development on a vaccination for COVID-19 provided light at the end of a dark tunnel of the threat of illness, hospitalization and death for billions.

Yet, here in Polk County where more than 80 people have died since May 2020 from the virus or complications worsened by COVID-19 (83 as of June 9.) Some 379 people have required hospitalization, and more than 5,600 people have contracted the virus (combined PCR and antibody testing.)

Despite all this, the rate of vaccination to get local residents (and the nation as a whole) to herd immunity remains well under the state and national average.

As of the latest update provided by the Georgia Department of Public Health’s vaccination dashboard, only 11,294 residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine. 9,954 local residents have received the second dose out of the overall figure. Leaving just 24% of the population vaccinated, well below the amount needed to get to a level of herd immunity.

That’s compared to the 35% of Georgians who have been fully vaccinated, and the 42% of the nation who has gotten their shots as well. That’s more than 3.6 million Georgians who are vaccinated and more than 140 million Americans as a whole.

This is an issue that Dr. Gary Voccio, health director for the ten-county Georgia Department of Public Health Northwest Health District, is keeping an eye on along with the trend of new COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths going down.

In an interview with Voccio earlier in the day, he said that the quarter of people vaccinated locally is on par with what the Health Department is seeing across the region.

He encourages everyone to get their dose(s) as soon as possible despite any misgivings they may have about what they might have heard on social media about reactions to the vaccine.

“People are worried about the side effects, it is going to effect them in any way? Sure, there are mild side effects with the vaccines but they are very self-limited,” Dr. Voccio said. “It’s not going to change your DNA, and we’re not going to track you with the vaccines.”

He added that the vaccine could save your life given the potential for new variants of the virus proving to be more infectious and cause greater health risks in short and long term.

The largest group vaccinated thus far is the one most likely to be impacted, and Dr. Voccio said that some 70% of people over the age of 65 have received a full dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Yet the new danger is the slight increase in recent days of new infections and hospitalizations in younger generations who are contracting the virus. Dr. Voccio reported, though the symptoms caused by the virus aren’t causing the same level of intensity of care and is more survivable. Additionally, new therapies for the virus are helping to ensure that when someone does get sick, they have a better chance of fighting off the infection.

Dr. Voccio’s greatest worry for younger people who contract COVID-19 are the impacts that might not be fully understood for years.

“We don’t want them to get what is called long COVID, because they certainly can. That’s a kind of a long-term disability with mental status changes, chronic fatigue, and other symptoms,” Dr. Voccio said. “There are side effects like this from the COVID infection, so it is important for even young people to get vaccinated.”

This is a real concern, especially as vaccination rates remain low. That will likely contribute to the likelihood of pockets of new infections popping up until herd immunity is achieved, Voccio reported.

“We may have outbreaks periodically, its going to be small numbers most likely. They will be identified and treated quickly, because we have learned a lot in a year and a half,” Voccio said.

Already, he’s gotten reports from state epidemiologists that the Delta variant has shown up in the United States, accounting for a smaller number of new infections across the country but enough to be concerned about it. This particular variant of COVID-19 accounts for 6% of all infections in the US, and is the same strain that is now spreading rapidly across the United Kingdom as well.

“There is concern for it, but we seem to think hopefully the vaccines will reduce the infectiousness of that and of course the transmissibility of that, and hopefully the death rates as well,” Voccio said. “I suspect we’ll find that as we have found the other variants were reduced in transmission rate and death from the vaccines also.”

One other issue is the lack of understanding on how the virus spreads. Dr. Voccio explained that the virus isn’t spreading in a 1-to-1 transmission, but in a geometric pattern more akin to 1-to-2 transmission or 1-to-3 transmission rates.

This means that every person who contracts COVID are likely to pass it on not to just one person in the process, but more likely to two or three people. They in turn give it to two or three people, and so on until you get to pandemic levels of more than 30 million infections found in the United States (and likely more since many went without any symptoms of the virus.)

This makes it much harder to slow down transmission of the virus without widespread vaccination being undertaken and the public’s cooperation to take part and trust that it will work.

“Once we get it lower, the transmission will stop and then the pandemic will stop,” Dr. Voccio said.

The good news? The numbers are trending down because people are getting their shots.

Infection rates have slowed locally and across the nation. Today’s tally of COVID-19 infections increased by just over 13,000 new people who have been found with the virus. That’s compared to new infections that were in the hundreds of thousands of people back during the third wave of the virus spreading across the nation in January, and the dozens of new cases at that time locally. That makes the virus more manageable over time.

“The reason we’re seeing this is because the vaccines work,” he said. “There’s just no doubt in my mind. When you look at when the vaccines came out, the numbers began to go down primarily because of non-pharmaceutical interventions. But clearly now that the vaccines have been made available, clearly the hospital rates are down, and clearly the positivity rate is way, way down and deaths rate are down also.”

“The takeaway here is that vaccines clearly work, and we need to get vaccines into as many arms as possible just to stop these transmissions,” he added.

Vaccinations are available through the Health Department, and through medical partners provided free of charge.

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