WHEELING — West Virginia’s coronavirus response coordinator doesn’t think herd immunity will happen with COVID-19.
Missing that threshold isn’t as much about those who decline a COVID-19 vaccine, Dr. Clay Marsh said this past week. It’s more about those who can’t receive a vaccine right now — children.
Only people age 16 and older can receive the Pfizer vaccine. The Moderna vaccine is authorized only for people 18 and older. Vulnerable children may get vaccinated, but there remains a significant swath of the United States population that can’t get a shot and will still be susceptible to getting sick.
“The absolute definition of herd immunity for a virus that has a reproductive rate or transmission rate that this virus does would be about 80 percent,” Marsh said. “And since I don’t think we’ll be immunizing our children, I don’t think we’ll get up to 80 percent as a country. Now, enough people might get infected to substitute for that, so it’s possible.”
Marsh said that makes the need even greater for those who can receive the vaccine to do so, and that those who may be wary of the vaccine shouldn’t be.
Marsh, WVU health sciences vice president and executive dean, has since the pandemic first took root in West Virginia, been tabbed as the Mountain State’s “coronavirus czar.” He has been nearly as ubiquitous as Gov. Jim Justice on the governor’s thrice-weekly virtual COVID response updates. He sits among the leadership in West Virginia guiding the game plan on how to tackle the disease.
So far, the state’s strategies have been paying off. The Department of Health and Human Resources’ COVID-19 alert map just weeks ago was almost entirely red, signifying the map’s highest-risk category. On Friday, there were no red counties on the map and just seven counties in orange, the map’s second-highest-risk category.
Marsh said over the first six weeks of 2021 there has been a week-to-week 72-percent reduction in the number of COVID-related deaths and more than a 70 percent reduction in the number of COVID-related hospitalizations. There are fewer COVID patients in intensive care and the number of outbreaks in nursing homes and long-term care facilities has dwindled to nearly zero.
He believes the key to those successes has been the availability of vaccines, and it doesn’t even take the full two doses to do the trick.
“I think for me, the vaccine has been the major reason it has come down,” he said. “We’ve seen that a single dose of the vaccine is really very effective in reducing deaths and severe illness after 15 days.”
West Virginia has been among the most effective states in quickly getting vaccine doses into arms. According to the DHHR, as of Friday, the state has administered 87.7 percent of first doses allocated and 94.2 percent of second doses. That means 285,654 West Virginians are at least partially protected from the virus and 183,537 are fully protected.
Still, there is a sizable number of the state’s population that remains hesitant to get the vaccine. That has been seen even in nursing homes and long-term care facilities, where some of the state’s most vulnerable live. Marsh said about 85 percent of residents and 63 to 65 percent of staff in those facilities have agreed to be inoculated.
That’s better than the national average — Marsh said that’s between 72 and 73 percent of residents and 35 to 38 percent of staff — but that still means 15 percent of residents and 35 percent of staff in West Virginia haven’t been vaccinated.
He also has seen hesitance among hospital staff. Much of that, he said, comes from younger women who have heard the vaccine could cause sterility, a claim Marsh said was “absolutely false.”
“People are scared of the vaccine,” he said. “(They think) it came too fast. There was some false advertising that it could cause sterility in women, so a lot of women were hesitant to take it. And there’s no grounding to that. And a lot of people thought it could give you the virus and it can’t do that. I think there is a level of mistrust. The good news is we’ve seen that really change, I think.”
Marsh is happy to see that change because he also believes COVID-19 could be with the world for a very long time. It may never completely disappear, but it may get to a point where vaccines could hold back severe illness and death. The U.S. has seen more than 500,000 die from the virus, with 2,291 in West Virginia.
“It is very likely that COVID will become an endemic infection,” he said. “It’s going to be with us forever and we may well be taking a flu-shot equivalent yearly against COVID. At least in the immediate time frame, that’s probably true.”
To get ahead of the game, Marsh hopes West Virginians do two things. The first is to pre-register for a vaccine either on the state’s website, vaccinate.wv.gov, or by calling 1-833-734-0965 between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Saturdays. There are between 250,000 and 300,000 in the system now, Marsh said, but the rate really has slowed down.
“We can’t vaccinate who we don’t have in the system,” he said. “We’d like every citizen to be registered if at all possible so we can track what we’re doing and make sure we know who’s out there. Because if we don’t know you’re there, we can’t include you in our priority list.”
The other thing, he said, was to brush aside fears of vaccine side effects. Sterility isn’t a danger. Neither is getting full-blown COVID.
By choosing to get a shot when it’s offered, West Virginians can strike a major blow against the disease.
“These vaccines are miracles,” Marsh said. “They’re not scary. It’s not risky to take it. It’s really showing what biomedical sciences mean to our futures and this is really what great public health does.
“The biggest thing other than clean water and all that in public health has been vaccines,” he continued. “This one is demonstrating how powerful vaccines are. These vaccines are changing what’s happening with COVID in our world, our country and our state. We really want people to choose to take them. It not only saves lives of the people who take them, it saves lives of people who don’t take them, because it slows down that transmission.”