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‘Delta variant should be that warning flag,’ says Tacoma ER doctor

A digital highway sign promotes COVID-19 vaccination on May 14, 2021 in Vancouver, Washington. (Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

There’s a perfect storm happening now with the return of near-normal behavior, the leveling off in people getting vaccinated, and the new Delta variant.

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“The Delta variant should be that warning flag of, ‘hey, we don’t want this to get any worse,'” said Dr. Nathan Schlicher, a Tacoma ER doctor and president of the Washington State Medical Association.

He says the COVID-19 vaccines are showing to be about 85% effective at preventing disease against the Delta variant, and about 95% against hospitalization.

“But 85% means that 15%, about one in seven, can still get the disease,” he said. “About one in 20 could still be hospitalized, despite being vaccinated. And so that’s the Delta variant.”

“If we continue to allow it to evolve in the community, if we continue to allow mutation to occur because we’re not getting vaccinated, we’re not curbing the disease, then we’re potentially going to have new variants that could cause us more problems,” he added.

The bottom line for Schlicher, as he told KIRO Radio’s Hanna Scott, is that: “The vaccine is good.”

He explains that there are a couple things the vaccine does, one of which is protecting us from disease, and in turn, helping to keep our communities open.

“Two, it prevents the virus from circulating in the community to create new mutations,” he said.

Unfortunately, while the state’s vaccination rate is nearly 70%, there has been a drop in vaccinations.

“We’re making progress — about 30,000 doses a day in the state — but we could be doing more,” Schlicher said. “Right now, it is not a problem of supply of vaccine like in the early days. This is that time where ‘if you want a shot, you can get a shot’ truly applies. So if this is that thing has been on your list that you say, ‘hey, I’ll get around to it, but I got bills to pay, groceries to pick up, 1,000 other things to do,’ well, take the time, make it the priority now because we need to get this done to help protect our communities and each other.”

Dr. Schlicher also points out that the 85% protection against the Delta variant from the vaccines only comes after the full vaccination series, which would be two shots in the case of Pfizer and Moderna.

“Unlike the Alpha variant that we had a decent amount of protection after the first dose, the Delta variant is not seeing that protection similarly occurring with the first dose,” he said. “So it’s even twice as important now to get vaccinated and get it started. And if you’re one of those ones that got your first dose and hasn’t gotten a second, because, again, it wasn’t a priority, get in and get that second dose. Bring your immunity from 40% to 90% against the Delta variant.”

For those worried about the safety of the vaccine, Dr. Schlicher says he reminds people that the technology of mRNAs is not new, and has been in use for 20 years.

“Secondarily, we now have one of the largest studies in human history on the safety and efficacy of this vaccine,” he said. “If you think about it, a lot of cancer drugs, we’re testing on 1,000 people or less and we’re approving them. We have hundreds of millions of doses delivered of this vaccine. When it comes to the safety profile of this medication, it is one of the best tested, best evaluated medications you will receive in your life.”

“I would bet you many of your friends have gotten medications that they have taken without a second thought, your family members have without a second thought, that have a lot less safety research attached to them, but it’s good science,” he added.

For those who say they never get a flu shot and are always fine, Dr. Schlicher says “this is not the flu.” As COVID-19 evolves and mutates, he says it’s getting better at adapting for transmission and leading to more hospitalizations than the last variants. On top of that, there are a number of long-term effects from COVID-19 that you could face — it’s not just living through it or dying from it.

“Death is easy when it comes to COVID,” Schlicher said. “There are a lot of people living out there with long-term complications from this disease. I’ve got friends that are in their 30s that have heart failure, they’ve gotten blood clots from it, and may not be able to return to the activities they love, ever.”

“So when we talk about it, and you say, ‘well, I’m not going to die.’ That’s not the only outcome that can impact your life,” he added. “There are a lot of things — chronic fatigue, pulmonary embolisms, heart disease and lung damage — that could forever change what you are enjoying in your healthy 20s and 30s and make your life a lot different, even if you survive. Quality of life, not just quantity of life is a real issue for folks.”

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Thankfully, the United States was able to stave off some of the impact of the Alpha variant that ravaged the United Kingdom in the winter and sent them back to lockdown. There was some protection from the vaccinations by the time it hit U.S. shores.

“We went back up — there was no argument our cases spiked back up after February when we were kind of on that down slope, but we were able to weather that storm because of the vaccination rate and the protections we had,” Schlicher said.

“But again, Delta, the India variant, is much higher, much more transmissible, … and much more likely to get you in the hospital,” he added. “So again, yes, we’re doing more and more vaccine, and more and more protection. But the disease is getting smarter and more aggressive and so it means we need to be more and more and more vaccinated to protect ourselves.”

If we let things go as they are now, Schlicher worries that we could see another backslide.

“We’re at a crossroads, much as we were when the UK variant hit. Everybody was thinking we were going back. Remember the governor was opening back up phases, and then Pierce County, where I live, backslid into Phase 1 because the UK variant took over and we exploded. We’re at that point again where we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and our choices will decide, do we get there or are we going to potentially backslide again?”

“And that’s a real risk with the Delta variant or whatever comes after it,” he added. “So I just encourage folks: Take the time to get vaccinated, to protect yourself. Still use common sense and precautions. Again, I may be vaccinated, but I don’t like the idea of a 5% risk of getting hospitalized with the Delta variant. So when I’m in mass gatherings with people that I don’t know, I’m still wearing a mask.”

KIRO Radio’s Hanna Scott contributed to this report. Listen to Seattle’s Morning News weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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