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Reopening doesn’t spell herd immunity for Washington, warn scientists

A sign indicating where to wait at a West Seattle vaccine clinic. (MyNorthwest photo)

Despite the state fully reopening this week for the first time since the pandemic started, state health officials warn that we haven’t seen the end of our COVID troubles.

With vaccinations plateauing and new variants spreading, state leaders say that it would be premature to look at the pandemic as over as we celebrate reopening.

As State Epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist explained, even with 69% of people vaccinated — just one percentage point below the state’s goal of 70% — we can’t say Washington has herd immunity. That’s because the distribution of vaccines is not spread out evenly.

“[Herd immunity] assumes that there’s universal [protection] across the state, if we say there’s 70% vaccinated, that means universal across the state, and that is just not what we’re seeing in Washington,” he said. “We are seeing very large pockets of low immunization.”

State officials worried about Gamma variant ahead of summer events

And the state’s three main variants — Alpha, Gamma, and Delta — are wreaking havoc on those unvaccinated groups.

Unlike other parts of the world, there do not appear to be many variant cases in vaccinated people in our state — showing that our vaccines do appear to be working against them.

King County Public Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin stated last month it was only a matter of time before unvaccinated people caught one of these variants.

Lindquist called the effort to stop the variant spread “a race against time” to get people vaccinated.

“It is rolling the dice to not get vaccinated,” said State Health Secretary Dr. Umair Shah. “It is a preventable illness and even hospitalization.”

While our overall cases are not shooting upward like other countries being hit hard by Delta, the percentages of our cases that are made up of Delta and Gamma are growing. This is concerning to health officials because Gamma is causing more hospitalizations than other mutations of COVID.

The good news is that while worldwide, Delta is causing more severe COVID infections, in Washington this does not appear to be the case.

“The big question on everyone’s mind is, will we do what other countries or states are doing to reinstitute masking guidance if the Delta variant becomes predominant and aggressive?” Lindquist said.

State officials say it’s possible masking — or even closures — could come back if the variant situation gets a lot worse. However, now is not that time, and the reopening is not being stopped.

“We’re not yet in a place to pull back a mask mandate,” said Lacy Fehrenbach, deputy secretary of the state’s COVID Response Team. “We’re also monitoring very closely the emergence of these variants and the situation in that regard and our disease levels.”

Shah said it is impossible to predict what could happen down the road with this new virus, but the one thing that is certain is that the vaccine is our tool out of the pandemic.

“Variants are an evolution of a virus, when you have a mutation and that virus has evolved. So we’ll never say never because we just don’t know what’s ahead,” Shah said. “But I will tell you that the more we get people vaccinated, the more we are protecting ourselves.”

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