As the delta variant continues to push COVID-19 cases higher in Monroe County, new data show the effectiveness of vaccines against infection is waning — but remains solid in protecting people from severe illness.
Indiana University Health said this week of 45 people who were hospitalized at IUH in the south-central region, 41, or 91%, were unvaccinated. All 12 patients in the ICU and both patients on ventilators were unvaccinated.
In addition, the Indiana State Department of Health told The Herald-Times since June 1, 97% of Hoosiers who have been hospitalized with COVID-19 have been unvaccinated.
“I encourage everyone who can get the vaccine to do so as soon as possible to protect themselves and others,” said Brian Shockney, IUH South Central Region president.
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The number of weekly COVID-19 cases in Monroe County increased this week to 141 per 100,000 population, about five times as high as the incidence rate in late June.
Incidence rates in all neighboring counties are significantly higher, with Lawrence County recording 628 weekly cases per 100,000, according to the ISDH.
Only two counties in the southern half of the state — Monroe and Fayette — remained in the yellow advisory level, the second-lowest, while most others, including all neighboring counties, were in orange, the second-highest. Eleven Indiana counties were in the red advisory level, the most concerning.
New national data show the vaccines’ ability to protect people from infection has fallen, but an Indiana University professor told The Herald-Times that COVID-19 vaccines, as intended, are still providing robust protection against severe illness.
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According to USA Today, a partner of The Herald-Times, data from Mayo Clinic Health System facilities showed the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine’s effectiveness declined from 76% to 42% and Moderna’s declined from 86% to 76% from May to late July, CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said. Plus, reports from thousands of nursing homes showed effectiveness among the most vulnerable populations dropped from 75% in March to 53% in on Aug. 1, the months when delta was the dominant strain.
To address that drop off, U.S. health officials are preparing to start offering COVID-19 booster shots next month. All U.S. adults who received a two-dose vaccine would be eligible for a third dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine eight months after they got their second one, under the plan announced Wednesday. A few days earlier, third shots were recommended for the immunocompromised.
Alexander Dent, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the IU School of Medicine, said most vaccines do not provide people with robust protection against an infection.
Vaccines work by producing immunoglobulin, which are proteins in the immune system that serve as antibodies. Dent, whose work focuses on antibody responses and the regulation of antibodies, said immunoglobulin comes in different types, including IgA, which prevents infection and is found on mucosal surfaces such as the sinuses, airway and lungs, and IgG, which primarily prevents severe illness and is found in blood.
Dent said most vaccines do not produce a strong IgA response, and immunologists are trying to figure out how to change that, though it remains challenging especially for respiratory diseases.
The COVID-19 vaccines produce some IgA response and provided good protection against infection from earlier COVID strains. However, Dent said the working hypothesis is that the delta variant’s much higher viral load more frequently overwhelms the vaccines’ IgA response and therefore causes more breakthrough cases, or infections in vaccinated people.
Nonetheless, Dent said, if an infection takes hold in vaccinated people, the vaccines’ robust IgG response allows the body’s immune system to keep the infection in check, which means vaccines generally protect people against more severe illness.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also have said while fully vaccinated people who become infected can spread the virus as easily as unvaccinated people who become infected, fully vaccinated people “are likely infectious for less time than unvaccinated people.”
Health officials continue to urge people to get vaccinated and to wear masks indoors. Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, told National Public RadioR Thursday morning that unvaccinated people are “sitting ducks.”
And a new study by Indiana University and RAND Corp. researchers found about 140,000 U.S. deaths were prevented during the first five months of vaccination efforts.
Health officials also have told The Herald-Times people should get vaccinated not just to protect themselves and their loved ones, but to prevent offering their bodies as incubators for even more dangerous variants.
To get vaccinated, visit ourshot.in.gov.
While older people are still more vulnerable to becoming seriously ill from the disease, more younger people are now becoming infected, in part because vaccinations are not yet available for people younger than 12.
The vast majority of people recover from the illness. Nationally, about 1.7% of people who tested positive have died. The overall mortality rate of COVID-19 is about 17 times higher than for flu.
The vast majority of people who have died from COVID-19 were older, although much of those statistics are from before the delta variant became dominant or vaccines were widely available. Most had chronic health conditions.
In Indiana, more than half of the people who have died were at least 80 years old. More than three quarters were at least 70. In Monroe County, more than three quarters of infections were in people younger than 50, yet all of the 182 people who have died were at least 50.