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'A Pandemic of the Unvaccinated' 

A variant-fueled surge brings renewed urgency to vaccine push

Dale Stocky celebrates his 75th birthday by getting the COVID-19 vaccination he’d newly become eligible for at a Mad River Community Hospital vaccine clinic Jan. 23 at Pacific Union Elementary School.


Dale Stocky celebrates his 75th birthday by getting the COVID-19 vaccination he’d newly become eligible for at a Mad River Community Hospital vaccine clinic Jan. 23 at Pacific Union Elementary School.

Mirroring a statewide trend, Humboldt County's COVID-19 case counts are lurching upward, fueled almost entirely by the new Delta variant's circulation in unvaccinated populations a month after the state lifted almost all of the restrictions aimed at curbing the virus' spread.

Statewide, California recorded a daily average of six new confirmed COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents over the seven-day period before the Journal went to press July 20, nearly triple the daily averages from early June. And the percentage of COVID-19 testing samples that came back positive for the virus had similarly jumped to 4.1 percent, the state's highest rate since February.

The numbers in Humboldt County, meanwhile, are even worse, with a daily average of nearly 11 new confirmed COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents over the same period and a test-positivity rate of 10.5 percent. As of July 20, the county's test-positivity rate for the month sat at 8.6 percent — the second-highest of any month locally since the pandemic's start, trailing only the post-holiday surge in January, when it topped out at 9.9 percent.

On July 20, Public Health reported that since July 12, it had confirmed 122 new cases of COVID 19, as well as six new hospitalizations — including two of residents in their 40s — and two deaths.

And with various aspects of local life continuing to open up — from indoor concerts to a week of sometimes crowded rodeo festivities in Fortuna — there's little reason to believe infection rates will slow absent new restrictions or a significant uptick in vaccination rates.

In recent weeks, local officials have been warning that residents age 19 and younger are increasingly accounting for case spread locally amid an upwelling in cases of the Delta variant, which was identified in 25 percent of local samples that underwent genomic sequencing last month. (Since the pandemic began, 13 Humboldt County residents age 29 and younger have been hospitalized with the disease, including two under the age of 19.)

Nationally, the Delta variant now accounts for 83 percent of cases that have undergone genomic sequencing, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky, a dramatic increase from the 50 percent it accounted for at the beginning of this month.

Health officials have repeatedly warned the new variant is both more transmissible and more likely to cause critical illness than other mutations of COVID-19.

"We should think about the Delta variant as the 2020 version of COVID-19 on steroids," Andy Slavitt, a former senior advisor to the White House's COVID response team, recently told CNN. "It's twice as infectious. Fortunately, unlike 2020, we actually have a tool that stops the Delta variant in its tracks: It's called vaccine."

And while there is mounting evidence vaccines are less effective against the Delta variant than others — a recent study in Israel found the Pfizer/BionTech vaccine to be 64 percent effective against infection and 93 percent effective in preventing severe disease and hospitalizations — so-called "breakthrough" cases infecting fully vaccinated individuals remain rare.

Walensky said during a July 16 press briefing that more than 97 percent of the nearly 25,000 people hospitalized in the U.S. were unvaccinated, with U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy adding that 99.5 percent of recent COVID-19 deaths were of unvaccinated people.

In Humboldt County, Public Health reported July 20 that two of the county's 222 hospitalizations and none of the county's 53 COVID-related deaths have been fully vaccinated people.

"This is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated," Walensky said.

But while the vaccines appear very effective in preventing severe illness and death, questions still remain as to just how effective they are in preventing asymptomatic infections. A recent spate of high-profile infections in fully vaccinated individuals — including a cluster of New York Yankees, some Olympic athletes and political staffers in Washington, D.C. — have raised doubt about vaccines' effectiveness.

Infectious disease experts, meanwhile, have noted that the high profile cases have been found in people who are tested with extreme regularity through their work, indicating that asymptomatic infection of fully vaccinated people may be more common than initially thought. But they are quick to note the vaccines remain extremely effective in preventing severe illness, even amid the surge in Delta variant cases.

But between the high-profile breakthrough cases and a political climate that has seen Republican officials and conservative pundits loudly and repeatedly minimize the effectiveness of the vaccines and the risks of infection, vaccination rates have plateaued nationally, statewide and locally.

According to the county's dashboard, 54.67 percent of the population was at least partially vaccinated as the Journal went to press July 20, an increase of just 0.44 percent over the prior week. Nearly 49 percent of local residents were fully vaccinated.

California's surging numbers have officials once again contemplating imposing restrictions designed to mitigate the virus' spread. Los Angeles County — home to a quarter of the state's population — recently re-imposed a mask order for all indoor public spaces. Seven Bay Area counties quickly issued recommendations that everyone wear masks, regardless of vaccination status, and on July 19, Monterey, Napa, San Benito and Santa Cruz counties followed suit. But there has been widespread pushback to the prospect of requiring vaccinated people to once again mask up, primarily in an effort to protect their unvaccinated neighbors, making health officials reticent to re-impose the mandates.

In a July 19 press conference, Gov. Gavin Newsom sidestepped a question about imposing another statewide mask mandate and instead took the opportunity to push vaccination.

"If we want to end this pandemic once and for all, if we want to turn the page, we can get it done in a matter of weeks, not months," he said. "It's as simple as this: If you're not vaccinated, get vaccinated."

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the news editor at the Journal. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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Thadeus Greenson

Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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