Virologist: How can we win over unvaccinated Washingtonians?

Aug 15, 2021, 7:00 AM | Updated: 7:00 am
masks, virologist, mask mandate...
A sign reminds customers to wear their mask. (MyNorthwest photo)
(MyNorthwest photo)

As cases of COVID-19 are again rising locally and nationwide and the vaccination effort continues, KIRO Radio’s Gee and Ursula turned to a frequent guest of the show, virologist Dr. Angela Rasmussen, for answers and explanations.

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To start, what is her concern right now for the United States in terms of COVID-19?

“My concern right now is with the still large numbers of unvaccinated people in many communities and with the delta variant surging,” she said. “While there has been a lot of really alarming information … about the delta variant infecting vaccinated people, the delta variant still is largely being driven, the surge in those cases, is largely being driven by the unvaccinated.”

“So my concern really is how do we get people who are unvaccinated to be vaccinated,” she added.

Dr. Rasmussen thinks a mistake that many of her colleagues and some public health agencies have made is assuming that “the unvaccinated” is one large, monolithic group that has made a choice not to get vaccinated.

“There are still major issues with access to the vaccines,” she said. “Many essential workers can’t afford to take time off if they have side effects from the vaccine so they haven’t been able to get them. People might not have transportation to a site where they can be vaccinated and they can’t get it from their primary care provider. There are still a number of serious impediments to people getting vaccinated.”

“We need to overcome that,” she added. “As well as answer people’s questions that they still have about vaccination and hopefully win some hearts and minds.”

In response to a lot of the disinformation that has been spread about vaccines and even masks, Dr. Rasmussen shared what she often tells people.

“One of the biggest fallacies that really has been out there, and it doesn’t just apply to masks, but also applies to vaccines, is the idea that if something doesn’t work perfectly 100% of the time then it doesn’t work at all,” she explained. “Now it’s true that masks, even N95 masks — which means 95% protection from those particles — they’re not perfect.”

“Nothing in this world is 100% perfect or operates perfectly all the time,” Rasmussen noted. “And anybody who has driven a car that’s broken down, anybody who has used an appliance in their house knows that, and anybody who’s gotten sick ever — nothing is 100% perfect all of the time.”

So the data that shows masks don’t work absolutely perfectly and don’t block every single particle, she says that doesn’t mean that they don’t have any effect at all.

“All of the evidence shows that masks, especially when they’re part of a layered, non pharmaceutical intervention approach, do have an impact on community transmission,” Rasmussen said. “If you combine masks with a powerful tool like vaccination, that really, really dramatically reduces exposure risk, and that really, really will dramatically reduce transmission in a population.”

Breakthrough cases — when someone gets COVID-19 after being fully vaccinated — follow the same argument in that nothing works perfectly 100% of the time.

“First of all, no vaccine is 100% effective,” Rasmussen said. “So there will always the breakthrough infections. As more people get vaccinated, more people are going to still be exposed, so you will see more people becoming infected who have been vaccinated.”

“But the data that we really need to look at carefully is the data about severe disease, and even symptomatic disease,” she continued. “So even against delta, where there may be a higher rate of breakthrough infection, there may be a higher rate of mild symptomatic disease — although it doesn’t look like it’s that much higher — it’s quite clear that full vaccination continues to protect people, especially against severe disease, against hospitalization, against being in the ICU, and against death.”

As more people get vaccinated, Rasmussen says we will see more breakthrough cases “just because that’s how numbers work.

“But if you compare the cases and especially the severe cases in unvaccinated versus vaccinated people, it’s very obvious that that vaccination provides a tremendous benefit,” she said. “It saves lives.”

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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Virologist: How can we win over unvaccinated Washingtonians?