The San Francisco Chronical reported this week that California has the lowest COVID case rates in the US. This is remarkable given that it has some of the largest metropolitan areas in the US and that the state had the highest case rates in the nation during this past winter. These low COVID rates speak to the effectiveness of two important public health strategies. The first was the color-coded Tier System which placed restrictions on sizes and types of gatherings along with mandating mask wearing. The second has been the role out of vaccinations. In California, 41% of the adult population is now fully vaccinated and an additional 20% are partially vaccinated.
As the pandemic continues over the next year, we should expect further ebbs and flows in case rates. The key to avoiding another horrific winter like this past one is to get more people vaccinated. Vaccination not only halts transmission and keeps people who get the infection from becoming seriously ill, it also stops the virus from mutating. This is because mutations occur during the period of infection when viral replication is the highest. Vaccines keep the virus in check by giving the immune system a head start against the infection so that it can’t replicate at such a high rate that leads to more mutations.
There are different projections of what percentage of the population needs to have immunity, either by previous infection or vaccine, to give so called “herd immunity”. For viruses that have low mutation rates, this is probably around 60%, but for COVID it is more likely around 80%. Herd immunity does not eradicate the virus, but it does bring the pandemic to a halt. Complete eradication, like we accomplished with smallpox, requires something closer to 100% and must be worldwide.
While we have mostly focused on older adults during this pandemic, because they are the ones who are at highest risk of dying, the ability to harbor and spread the virus extends all the way down to the early teenage years. This is because the SARS-2 virus, which causes the disease COVID, uses a particular receptor on our cells’ surfaces to gain entry and start the infection. This receptor, called the ACE receptor, starts appearing on our cells as we go through puberty. Thus, the goal of 80% vaccination to achieve the benefit of herd immunity needs to include members of society all the way down to age 12 when puberty begins for most of us.
This is also the reason that children below age 12 are much less likely to get the infection or effectively spread it. Hence, the initial reopening of schools that was up through sixth grade when students are around age 11 or 12.
Here on the Mendocino Coast, vaccination of adolescents age 12-16 with the Pfizer vaccine is available through Mendocino Coast Clinics (MCC) by calling 707-964-1251 for an appointment. You don’t have to be a patient of the clinic. MCC gave 200 shots to adolescents last week. They are also providing the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for adults who prefer one shot and the Moderna vaccine as well. The local chain pharmacies Rite Aid, CVS and Safeway are also providing vaccination for both adults and adolescents. To get the shot through them, you must sign up on the state website myturn.ca.gov.
This pandemic has had so many negative impacts upon all of us. The two most obvious being the loss of life and the damage to our economy. By bringing the pandemic to an early conclusion through vaccination, we can save lives and safely bring our economy back. It seems that participating in these national goals are what define each of us as responsible citizens. So, please, get vaccinated and have your teenagers vaccinated, too.