CHARLES TOWN — Health officials worldwide continue to monitor whether evolving coronavirus strains pose new or more significant public health dangers. But the vaccines given to Americans have so far been highly effective in preventing serious COVID-19 illnesses and complications, according to Dr. Terrence Reidy, the top health official with the Jefferson County Health Department.
“If you’re immunized, you have good protection against death, good protection from being extremely ill and disabled from this,” Reidy stated.
Reidy said an encouraging trend for the pandemic this winter is showing in India and the United Kingdom. There, where Delta variants had surged, the number of infections suddenly fell without clear reasons why.
“The Delta spreads more quickly. Whether it causes more serious disease is harder to tell,” he said. “The fear is that this is going to mutate into a deadlier strain or deadlier variant, and that is a possibility. But often parasitic things mutate into things that are less deadly but more easily transmitted.”
Two weeks ago, the number of known infections reported to the health department began rising to five to seven cases a day, Reidy said. Previously about one infection a day was being found, and sometimes none were, he said.
“It’s just been gradually going up,” he said of the number of coronavirus infections in Jefferson County. “Throughout the state, that’s happening.”
“So the hope is our current surge in cases is not going to be anything like last January,” he continued. “But it’s going to get worse and then start getting better for no obvious reason.”
Reidy said it takes about two to three weeks for test results to tell whether a particular infection involves the Delta strain. And not every infection case is tested to identify the specific variant involved, he said.
For that reason, the posts on the state health department’s website that identify virus strains is typically two weeks or so old, Reidy said.
Last Friday, the state website reported 161 active known cases of the Alpha strain from the United Kingdom in the county. Othewise, there were three cases each in the county involving the Delta strain from India and the Gamma strain from Brazil.
The original coronavirus from China that started the pandemic is still active, Reidy said. It’s just that other coronavirus strains have overtaken that virus strain to become “quite small” as a general threat, he said.
“It’s not out of existence, but there are others that we’re seeing now,” he said.
Based on national trends of the pandemic, his calculated assumption is that most of the new cases in Jefferson County over the past three weeks involved the Delta strain. “The break-through cases [of infections where COVID symptoms are noticeable] are higher now with the Delta, and that’s being seen across the world,” he said.
More than 70 percent of the viruses indentified at the labs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are the Delta strain, Reidy said.
“A fair number [of new infection cases] are occurring in people who have been previously vaccinated, and that’s a big change,” he added. “The good thing is those people are not getting seriously ill.”
“That’s the real thing we want to know—are we overwhelming the medical system,” he said. “That’s the real thing that’s going to say we need to go into high gear with other measures.”
The official immunization rate for Jefferson County residents stands at 58 percent, which does not include children younger than 12 who are not eligible yet to receive coronavirus vaccinations. The vaccination rate also does not account for people who developed a natural immunity due to previous coronavirus infections.
Coronavirus immunizations are available by appointment at pharmacies, medical offices and at the county health department.
About four or five of the new infections in Jefferson County involve people who have been fully vaccinated, Reidy estimated. Over the past few months, he’s learned of one person in Jefferson County who had been immunized who was hospitalized with a subsequent COVID infection.
“It was just for a day,” he said. “They did quite well.”
“It does look like the vaccine is protecting against the worst clinical courses,” he said. “There was always a question of how long will that [vaccine] protection last. And all of our information about that now is kind of out the window because we’ve got a different variant.”
Identifying virus strains that appear to spread more readily or cause more severe disease or medical complications are tracked the closest, Reidy said. “So they have variants, and then they have variants of concern,” he said.
Viruses form new variants that change and adapt slightly and gradually over time as they pass from host to host, or from human to human in the case of the coronavirus, Reidy said.
“They can look at that by the difference in the DNA,” he explained. “So if you look at the DNA like the letters of a paragraph, you could change the meaning of the paragraph by changing one or two letters. ‘Is” or isn’t’ makes a big difference.”
Reidy said he hasn’t tracked a new Lambda variant, which wreaked havoc in Peru last year.
“There are all sorts of different ones, and until they start affecting our population, I don’t worry too much about them because they may or may not,” he said.
Last fall and winter would suggest that a surge in cases should re-emerge this fall and winter, Reidy said. However, the vaccinations people received and the immunizations others acquired through infections over the past year should protect more people through the colder months.
Reidy said the public will be widely notified when and if health officials recommend receiving a COVID booster shot. He said that such a public vaccination effort should unfold smoothly over time because people won’t need the booster shots all at once.
The first Jefferson County coronavirus vaccinations were administered in December. So anticipate an authorization for third doses to occur in the weeks approaching December, Reidy said.
But Reidy said a global perspective needs to be considered to protect Jefferson County residents over the long term. “We need for people who haven’t gotten their first doses to get it,” he said, “and then, worldwide, we need to get people vaccinated so that we don’t keep getting more and more harmful variants popping up.”
Meanwhile, the federal government has not yet formally approved third booster vaccine shots as safe, Reidy said. “We don’t know how much giving the average person a third dose improves their immune system,” he said. “That you’re going to decrease the number of deaths by giving a third dose—that’s the big thing. We don’t know.”
Time and more research should soon answer such uncertainties, as Reidy has said throughout the pandemic.