Washington health leaders say not enough people getting vaccine as cases plateau

Oct 27, 2021, 4:00 PM | Updated: 4:27 pm
vaccine, breakthrough...
A digital highway sign promotes COVID-19 vaccination in Vancouver, Washington. (Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)
(Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

With the U.S. Food and Drug Administration expected to soon give emergency use authorization to the COVID-19 vaccine for 5-11 year-olds, the state is poised to add nearly 700,000 people — nearly a 10th of Washington’s population — to the eligibility list.

But health experts fear that even that is not enough to stop future waves of the virus.

Michele Roberts, acting assistant secretary of Prevention and Community Health, said the state is counting on about 230,000 children out of 680,000 taking the vaccine at first. That’s how many doses are set to be shipped to Washington as soon as use is granted.

Right now, about 73% of the population ages 12 and up is fully vaccinated — about 61% of the state’s total population.

Idaho crisis impacts Washington hospitals’ ability to care for patients

This is still significantly below 80%, doctors’ initial calculation of the percentage needed to reach some form of herd immunity.

“That has changed with the delta variant, which is much more infectious, so that’s a very conservative estimate, that 80% of the population would have to be fully vaccinated,” State Epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist said. “And we are not anywhere near that.”

Lindquist added that the uneven spread of vaccinated people — from 74% fully vaccinated in San Juan County to 31% in Stevens County — is also working against us.

“We’ve got pockets of 10% or 20% vaccination, and then we have pockets of 80% to 90% vaccination, so it’s not a universal population like a model would predict. So that’s the biggest problem that we’re struggling with in Washington state is the state is not entirely equal with its vaccine coverage,” Lindquist explained. “So it will actually probably take quite a bit more than that 80%.”

Lindquist said it is possible that some parts of the state never reach that figure — and those regions with the lowest vaccination rates are the places most likely to keep experiencing recurring outbreaks.

That means that the state as a whole could see future waves until some level of community immunity is reached. While case counts have come down from the summer’s peak, the state’s highest wave yet, the decline has now stalled at a spot on par with last winter’s third wave.

“The disease is not slowing down,” Lindquist said. “In some places around the state, it is actually starting to pick up again.”

He attributed this rise to more gatherings taking place indoors due to the weather, people becoming lax on masking, and the reluctance of some people to get the vaccine. With party-filled holidays like Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas approaching, he is concerned — especially since each time we have a wave bigger than the one before, the baseline we start at gets even higher.

“Now this is the fifth wave, I certainly hope we can turn this around before it becomes a sixth wave, or an incredibly high plateau for the fifth wave,” Lindquist said.

While COVID hospitalizations have fallen — coronavirus patients have gone from 25% of the occupancy in hospitals to 16% since last month — Lindquist said hospitals are still dangerously full, at about 91% occupancy, due to people choosing to delay care or being forced to postpone it during previous surges. If hospitalizations start to match the plateau in cases, hospitalizations could be in for new challenges.

“It is concerning that we’re this high and we’re starting to slow down,” Lindquist said.

The good news is that hospitals are getting some help. COVID-19 Incident Commander Andrew Rose said that 1,096 federally contracted workers have arrived in Washington and are being dispersed to hospitals in need. Additional teams from the Department of Defense are giving extra help to Confluence Health in Wenatchee and Providence Sacred Heart in Spokane.

And as health officials reminded people, we know how to effectively use precautions because we have been able to bring down previous waves with masking and distancing, even before vaccines were available.

COVID-19 Response Deputy Secretary Lacy Fehrenbach said you do not need to give up celebrations as the holidays approach, but to simply be smart about it. Getting vaccinated, wearing masks, keeping gatherings small, and meeting in spaces with airflow are all ways to keep events safer.

“Your risk for COVID increases the more people you gather with, the closer you are in contact with those people, the more mixing there is of groups, and the more time you spend in confined spaces with poor ventilation especially, so indoors,” Fehrenbach said. “That means if you’re not vaccinated or you live in a community that has a low vaccination rate, going into winter you’re at very high risk for severe disease.”

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Washington health leaders say not enough people getting vaccine as cases plateau