Doctors: Washington likely needs 85-90% vaccination to defeat delta
While the state hit its original vaccination goal of 70% in July, health experts now say we need to aim higher if we want to stop the delta variant in its tracks.
That’s because the delta variant is so much more contagious than earlier strains, said Dr. Mark Johnson, who specializes in infectious diseases at Wenatchee’s Confluence Health.
“While people might have heard before, ‘Well, we need about 67% of us or so fully vaccinated’ — of the entire population, not of eligible people — now that math has changed a lot,” Johnson said during the Washington State Hospital Association’s Monday briefing. “And so we’re now talking about 85 to 90% of people who have to be fully vaccinated, based on how transmissible the delta variant is right now.”
Johnson called the variant a “game-changer,” and predicted that unless enough people get vaccinated, COVID-19 will not disappear.
“We are asking the immune system of fully vaccinated people to do too much for our communities,” he said. “And we can reasonably predict that until we get enough of us vaccinated, this virus will continue to mutate, … it will continue to circle back through our communities, and continue to infect susceptible populations for the next 12 to 18 months at these pandemic levels.”
The vast majority of people in the state’s ICUs with COVID are unvaccinated, so doctors say that a higher level of vaccination would ease the strain on overflowing hospitals right now. Not only does the vaccine make a person far less likely to catch COVID-19, but it also — in the very rare breakthrough cases that do occur — nearly always prevents the severe symptoms that can land a person in the hospital.
“The hospital crisis was completely preventable,” said MultiCare Chief Medical Officer and Senior Vice President Dr. David Carlson. “Had we had 100% vaccination within our communities, we would have 10 to 12 people in our hospitals with COVID [right now], as opposed to 275.”
Sadly, some of those are patients are pregnant women on the cusp of giving birth — a normally joyous occasion that becomes full of sadness when it occurs in an ICU full of COVID patients.
“We’re seeing ICU admissions, we’re seeing maternal deaths,” said Dr. Tanya Sorensen, an OB/GYN who works in maternal care at Swedish Hospital. “We’re seeing babies born prematurely, either to help the mother breathe or to rescue the baby because the mother is hypoxic.”
Sorensen said pregnant women are getting sick and developing severe symptoms in higher numbers than ever before in the pandemic — she could not specify how many — because their vaccination rate tends to be lower than the general public, around just 40%. Unfortunately, some of that is due to misinformation, such as a factually incorrect belief that the vaccine causes a woman to become infertile. Sorensen stressed that the vaccine is safe for women who are pregnant.
“There are no reasons why pregnant women should not get vaccinated,” Sorensen said. “The vaccine does not cause infertility.”
She advised any woman who is expecting and who has not yet had the shot to get it as soon as possible, so that she can be there to see her child grow up.
“It’s heartbreaking to spend my day in the ICU taking care of women who are pregnant and may not make it, and will maybe leave their babies motherless,” Sorensen said.
Full hospitals across Washington also means that non-urgent procedures are being canceled. And Carlson said that doesn’t just mean facelifts — it is the people waiting in excruciating pain for a hip replacement, or those who need a reverse colonoscopy.
“We’re canceling everything that we can that’s happening in our hospitals, just so we can have staff,” he said. “So unless you’re likely to be harmed or in undue distress for a surgery within the next 30 to 60 days, we’re canceling it, and we’re doing that week to week. This is, frankly, the most severe restriction on cancelations and surgeries that we’ve had to put into place since this started.”
Dr. Carlson pointed to New Orleans being hit with Hurricane Ida, and questioned how Washington would handle a similar disaster when hospitals are already full as it is.
“We all knew that there was going to be a fifth wave of COVID, but I don’t think any of us imagined that it was going to be this fifth wave,” Carlson said. “I’ve not ever in my career been concerned in the way that I am now about the challenges in our providers and our systems, and about the very real possibility that we’re on the edge of not being able to care for people properly in the community.”