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WA health leaders: 70% vaccination rate not end of pandemic

(Photo by Ricardo Ceppi / Getty Images)

Just because the state is open and we’ve reached our goal of vaccinating 70% of the population 16 and older with at least one dose, does not mean the pandemic is over — or that it will be over anytime soon, health officials warn.

Washington State Health Secretary Dr. Umair Shah said during the Department of Health’s Wednesday briefing that we are quite a ways off from being fully back to normal. He advised people to remember to continue to take precautions like wearing masks and avoiding indoor gatherings, especially if they are not vaccinated.

“We are likely going to be living with this virus for a long time coming — it is not going away anytime in the foreseeable future,” he said. “And so it is really critical for us to keep that in mind and be ready for that.”

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

While 70% was the vaccine goal, state leaders say it is not enough to declare herd immunity because it is not an even 70% spread everywhere. There are still pockets of people across the state that are largely unvaccinated. A look at the map of Washington’s counties on the Department of Health’s COVID-19 dashboard shows a range of vaccination rates from 75%  in San Juan County to just under 27% in Garfield County.

Shah is especially worried about the spread of variants, which is happening fastest in communities with lower vaccination rates.

“We do not want to see is a tale of two societies — those who are vaccinated and protected, and those who are unvaccinated and thereby unprotected,” he said.

While he said the Delta variant does not appear to be resisting vaccines in Washington — as it is not showing up overwhelmingly in breakthrough cases — it has greatly increased its prevalence, rising from 5% to 40% of cases. He noted that those who are not vaccinated are prime targets for variants.

“The best way to protect oneself, no matter the strain, is to get vaccinated,” he urged.

Shah looks toward the fall and winter months, when people will start gathering inside again, with concern. Last winter’s third wave, the highest wave seen yet, first began in October when the weather changed and outdoor socializing moved into warm homes.

“We want to get people vaccinated over the next two or three months,” Shah said. “When the weather starts to get cooler, when we start to get people indoors, if people are not vaccinated come winter, we’re going to potentially have some additional clusters and outbreaks that could have been preventable.”

It is too soon, he added, to know the exact percentage of people who need to be vaccinated to truly defeat the virus.

“Once everyone is eligible, essentially six months of age and up — right now it’s obviously just 12 and up — when everyone is eligible, then we’ll really get a feel for how many are fully protected from this virus, including our children,” he said. “Let’s hope we can get to this race against time before the winter.”

Otherwise, if kids still cannot get the vaccine, if the vaccination rate does not continue to rise much beyond 70%, and if variants start breaking through vaccines, we could be headed down the road toward another wave and more restrictions, Shah cautioned.

Michele Roberts, the department’s acting assistant secretary, said that ultimately, the end of COVID-19 in Washington will also depend on what happens globally.

“The virus will be with us until we see high vaccination rates across the world,” Roberts said. “We always say with vaccine-preventable diseases, they are only a plane ride away.”

Follow Nicole Jennings on Twitter or email her here

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