Biggest challenge to reach herd immunity is vaccinating those who had COVID-19, APH says

Travis County

AUSTIN (KXAN) — More than a year after identifying the first case of COVID-19, the top leaders at Austin Public Health held their final update Friday morning about the virus’ impact and the ongoing vaccination process.

The agency’s last virtual briefing included the first remarks from Dr. Desmar Walkes, who is now the health authority for Austin-Travis County. She succeeded Dr. Mark Escott in that role after he became the city’s chief medical officer.

Dr. Walkes said the biggest challenge for the community to reach herd immunity is convincing those who already had COVID-19 to now get vaccinated. She said they remain at risk of contracting the disease even after they’re recovered.

“They will have antibodies that are produced as a result of having contracted the illness,” Dr. Walkes said, “but those antibodies will not be as effective at fighting off illness that’s caused by some of the variants of the virus that we’re now seeing in the community. The antibodies themselves, we feel, only last for a 90-day period of time, so our big push is going to be to convince and educate those in our community who have had COVID-19 that they still should get a vaccination.”

Latest numbers

Dr. Walkes shared encouraging numbers that the positivity rate in Austin-Travis County is now 2.2%, and the seven-day moving average for hospitalizations went down to 12.

Additionally, Cassandra DeLeon, the agency’s chief administrative officer for disease prevention and health promotion, said almost 66% of all adults in Travis County have gotten at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. She said that puts the community very close to reaching the Biden administration’s goal of getting 70% of adults partially vaccinated by July 4.

“We’re almost there,” DeLeon said. “We just really want to encourage the rest of our community that may be on the fence — they’re not there yet, but we want to get them vaccinated — to take the opportunity this weekend to find a provider that suits them. There’s lots of choices for vaccine, and it’s free and available a a lot of different locations.”

Janet Pichette, the chief epidemiologist at Austin Public Health, said her team is also tracking COVID-19 clusters happening among younger people, including children, who are still not vaccinated.

“We’re starting to see fewer clusters associated with vaccinated individuals,” Pichette explained, “but there still exists a transmission risk for those individuals who are less than 15 years of age in our community.”

Pichette said her team also identified an increase in hospitalizations among younger people since vaccines are not widely available to them yet.

According to Austin Public Health’s own data, 78 people are currently hospitalized because of COVID-19, while 32 patients are in intensive care and 12 need the assistance of machines to breathe.

DeLeon encouraged families to get their children vaccinated now that the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine received emergency use authorization to use in those 12 and older.

“As we move into the summer season and athletics — I know a lot of children are involved in that — and summer camps,” DeLeon said, “if they’re at that 12-year-old age, they can get vaccinated, and you don’t have to worry about the potential impact that COVID could have on them because they’d be protected.”

COVID-19 booster vaccines

Adrienne Sturrup, the interim director of Austin Public Health, said the agency is already switching from opening mass vaccination centers to focus more on place-based, community pop-up clinics to administer the COVID-19 vaccine.

However, DeLeon said Austin Public Health will prepare to potentially stand up mass vaccination centers again in the fall whenever, or if ever, manufacturers recommend booster shots to improve protection against the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

“Currently we know the vaccine we have available in the United States is very, very strong for reducing COVID-19 disease and reducing death — and actually eliminating death for those who are vaccinated,” DeLeon said.

She said current studies about the vaccines’ effectiveness may result in developing them to better fight off variants circulating elsewhere in the world.

“We anticipate that the booster will incorporate maybe a different vaccine and not the vaccine we currently have, so that’s another thing we’re considering is what would that look like,” DeLeon said.

Grading pandemic response

Each of the public health experts answered a question about how they would grade their response this past year to the ongoing pandemic.

While calling it a difficult question, Sturrup said, “I would give us a B.”

“The effort was A,” she added. “I think the willingness to respond to challenges was an A. I think we had some resource and technology gaps that affected our ability, our efforts to match our intentions and our drive.”

Sturrup also said the B grade also denoted how much there still is to learn and improve.

“I think COVID was a very harsh reminder of the inequities we have in certain communities with respect to quality of life outcomes, with respect to health care, with respect to health care access,” Sturrup explained. “I think B because I want us to be even better. I want us to think beyond COVID. How do we as a city, as a county, as a health department — how do we plan to address those systemic inequities more effectively so that the next pandemic we’re better prepared?”

Pichette said the pandemic highlighted the need for more investment in public health, particularly technological infrastructure since she described some parts of the response as “building the airplane as we flew it.”

DeLeon also attributed some of the successes in the response to community partners and neighbors themselves for changing behaviors when surges in cases happened.

“The pandemic’s not over,” Dr. Walkes added. “We’re still in this to win it, and we’re still working to hone our machine.”

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