As of today, more than 600,000 people in Alabama have completed the two-part COVID-19 vaccine. Governor Kay Ivey will lift the mask requirement this month after one year of arguments and impassioned pleas both for and against wearing the simple pieces of cloth. In Baldwin County spring break reservations are on track and the beaches are beginning to fill.
So, the pandemic is over? Right?
Not even close.
“We are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, but we are still in the tunnel,” said Dr. Daren Scroggie, VP/CMIO Infirmary Health and associate program director Internal Medicine Residency.
“Relaxing masking and social distancing without having higher levels of immunity can result in another surge of cases, possibly with resistant or more infectious strains,” he said.
Unfortunately, according to national watchkeepers, those strains have already arrived in many places.
The Centers for Disease Control is reporting that the B1.1.7 variant of COVID-19, first identified in the United Kingdom is rapidly spreading in the United States. Scientists say the new variant appears to spread more easily and cause more severe disease, with 30 -50 % higher mortality in high-risk groups.
“The issue we are seeing is more that while the number of new cases is stable to slowly increasing, more and more of the new cases are the B1.1.7 variant,” Scroggie said. “The danger would then be that with a greater proportion of patients infected with a more contagious strain, it may lead to another rapid surge in cases when that strain becomes the most common variant in the population.”
Nationally, roughly 73 percent of people older than 65 have received at least one dose of the two-part vaccine, according to the CDC. More than 95 million Americans have received at least one shot. In Baldwin County 30,287 people have completed the vaccine series while another 48,000 have received at least one dose.
With a large portion of the elderly population protected, emergency rooms and ICUs around the nation are beginning to see an uptick in patients ages 35 – 44 with severe COVID-19 reactions.
Scroggie said locally doctors have not seen a surge in that age group though it is likely infection rates will rise as people travel for spring break and relax masking.
“It is likely that infection rates will go up again, more so in the unvaccinated groups who are likely to be in close contact. Severe disease is difficult to predict as there are a number of factors that come into play. The more people who are infected and spreading, the more likely you are to have some develop severe illness,” Scroggie said. “The good news is that more of the population at risk for severe disease is vaccinated, so that may keep the number of serious infections down somewhat but there is still a high risk of a fourth wave of infections.”
So, when the governor ends the mask requirement, should we all toss them in the trash and do a happy dance?
Scroggie says keep the masks handy, and wear them.
“While the number of new cases has improved and more people in vulnerable populations have been vaccinated, it is probably too soon to lift mask use and other restrictions,” Scroggie said. “The majority of the population has not even been eligible for the vaccine and while the risk of serious illness in those groups is lower, the transmission rate is higher. This could very well lead to another surge of new cases in unvaccinated individuals, some of whom will have severe illness.”