Next week as we give thanks for the blessings in our lives, we can express gratitude for the scientists and researchers who have made uncommonly speedy progress on a vaccine for the covid-19 coronavirus, providing a bit of good news amid shocking reports of escalating case counts in the nation, our state and Snohomish County.
Last week pharmaceutical maker Pfizer and its German partner, BioNTech, announced that preliminary results of trials for their vaccine candidate showed it to be more than 90 percent effective, with no serious safety concerns for side effects beyond mild fever or fatigue. That 90 percent rate is important because it provides the best hope for a quicker spread of immunity among populations and far exceeds the minimum goal of 50 percent effectiveness set by the federal Food and Drug Administration for covid vaccine candidates. That effectiveness rate is higher than the 50 percent to 60 percent seen with the annual flu vaccine, and is near the 97 percent rate seen with two doses of measles vaccine.
Further bolstering hopes is the fact that Pfizer’s results may mean similar outcomes for another 10 vaccine candidates now in late-stage trials.
A limited release of the Pfizer vaccine — initially reserved for those at highest risk of infection, such as health care workers and older adults — could be ready near the end of the year, following more review of study data, The New York Times reported last week.
The danger in that good news, however, is that it might lead some — believing that the worst has passed and a cure is just around the corner — to let down their guards and ease up on wearing masks and following other social-distancing and hygiene measures.
That’s not the message to take from this, especially now.
In many ways in Snohomish County and in the rest of the state, recent numbers for infections and other metrics are worse than during either of the earlier two covid surges, according to state and county health officials and others.
“The third wave of the virus appears to be the largest wave yet,” County Executive Dave Somers said last week. “The fact that we’re entering winter months with the highest case counts yet should send shivers down everybody’s spine.”
Washington state has recorded more than 2,400 deaths total during the pandemic, while the nation’s toll has risen to more than 243,000. Current projections from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, show that Washington may see more than 3,600 deaths by year’s end and as many as 7,000 by March 1. The nation could see 320,000 deaths by Dec. 31, and 439,000 by March 1.
The Snohomish County Health District reported more than 1,000 new cases of covid-19 during the week previous, forcing a sickening spike in the county’s two-week rolling average with nearly 190 new infections per 100,000 people; six weeks ago, that rate was just 46 per 100,000. The percentage of beds occupied by covid patients remained below the health district’s target, at just less than 4 percent at the end of October, but as that number typically lags behind infection rates, an increase in covid hospitalizations is likely. Dr. Chris Spitters, the county public health officer, warned that the recent increases will likely test the capacity of local hospital resources.
And it’s the nature of how the disease is now spreading that is providing guidance. Most of the transmission, according to the county health district, is coming not from community transmission, such as exposure in public spaces, but from close contacts, typically indoors with family and friends who live outside of the immediate household, such as family celebrations and having friends over for football games.
That data has led Gov. Jay Inslee and health officials to renew calls for vigilance on masks and social distancing. More restrictions from the governor’s office are possible in the coming days, but for now, Inlsee and others have asked state residents to adjust plans for gatherings of family and friends, especially for the coming holidays.
Inslee, in a video address Thursday asked people to “rethink” the holidays to reduce the spread of infections. The county health district was more blunt: “Holding gatherings is a threat to all. Stop it.” Instead, it recommended, limit the holidays to your immediate household.
That’s a tough ask, especially for families who have had to limit their gatherings for months already.
Yet, until vaccines are widely available and distributed, a little longer period of social distancing and more vigilance about wearing masks can help make sure that next year we can welcome family and friends into our homes and give thanks for being able to celebrate together without fear of endangering the health and lives of our loved ones.