Local doctor: Following safety protocols now will end pandemic sooner

Coronavirus

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — We could put the pandemic behind us by the end of June if we keep COVID-19 case numbers down and get people vaccinated quickly, a Mercy Health Saint Mary’s infectious disease specialist says.

But Dr. Andrew Jameson is concerned that people who have already been vaccinated aren’t continuing to follow mitigation protocols.

“We know that if you get infected and you have the vaccine in you and you are partially immune, you have the risk of creating a variant. That’s actually where variants come from,” he explained.

He said vaccinated people who spread variants put others around them who are unvaccinated at greater risk. Vaccination is not yet a pass to freedom, he warned.

He offered his comments to provide clarity about the new guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about what vaccinated people case safely do. Under that guidance, issued Monday, people who have been fully vaccinated may gather, unmasked, with other vaccinated people or with those at low risk for developing a severe case of COVID-19.

“The risk is to the kids and we’ve known for a long time that kids do pretty well,” Jameson said. “There is an uptick in the number of kids with inflammatory syndrome across the country and we’re not totally sure why that is, but even if anything unlucky happened, they would likely do really well.”

In public, vaccinated people should still wear masks and practice social distancing, and everyone should still limit unnecessary travel.

Michigan is vaccinating more and more people each week, but it has recently seen a plateau in case rates and hospitalizations. Jameson added that the number of COVID-19 inpatients at Mercy Health Saint Mary’s in Grand Rapids rose from five to 18 in the last week. He pointed out that Michigan’s rate of positive tests daily is creeping up.

Michigan also ranks third in the country for the number of variants circulating, which Jameson said is what concerns him the most. This week, Michigan confirmed its first case of the highly contagious variant first found in South Africa labeled as B.1.351.

People who are vaccinated but catch one of the COVID-19 variants would still test positive, but Jameson said the tricky part is that the PCR tests labs and hospitals routinely use in clinical medicine don’t pick up the variants.

“It has to be done by sequencing at the state level, so what we’re doing is if we ever find anyone who turns positive who’s been vaccinated previously, we send that off for sequencing,” he explained.

It’s possible PCR tests in the future will be able to detect variants.

Even with some concerning metrics, Jameson thinks this spring and summer will be leaps and bounds better than last year.

“The number of people who have been exposed previously, plus the number of vaccinations, is just going to increase the safety level,” he said. 

Nationwide, the case rate keeps declining and the rate of deaths, a lagging metric, is showing improvements, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

But for now, Jameson said, we have to push through pandemic fatigue and keep following safety measures.

“Everyone is so sick of it and I don’t blame them,” he said. “Our nursing staff is burned out and they are exhausted and they are sick of seeing people get really sick and die. We’ve never had as many nurses that are hurting coming to work as we do right now. There’s nothing we’ve ever had that has caused this much death and this much severe illness before.”

He hopes that people who are still skeptical of the necessity of following safety guidelines will pay attention to what’s happening.

“It would be nice for them to listen to the words of the people who are dealing with this, particularly people you don’t normally hear from. You don’t normally hear from infectious disease doctors or nurses on the front lines. They’re not making these things up,” Jameson said. “(I know) there’s been real repercussions for not being able to live life normally and there’s been real mental health repercussions for our kids and parents and families for being separated like this, but I think it’s important to realize that you can fix some of those things over time if you’re still alive.”

New vaccines could give even more hope for a faster end to the pandemic. AstraZeneca and Novavax are both working in getting emergency use approval in the U.S. for their respective COVID-19 vaccines.

Jameson said the Novavax option has a unique mechanism and seems to be robust in terms of efficacy that rivals Moderna and Pfizer’s vaccines, and also has good data showing its effectiveness against some of the variants.

How much those two vaccines could affect the end of the pandemic depends on how many doses the U.S. government is able to distribute once they have approval.

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