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Nevada Today

Nevada Today is a nonpartisan, independently owned and operated site dedicated to providing up-to-date news and smart analysis on the issues that impact Nevada's communities and businesses.

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COVID-19 Update: Delta Hurts

Joe Biden, White House, White House COVID-19 Response Team, COVID-19

COVID-19 continues to spread, and our numbers continue to look rough. As Americans again ask why this is happening all over again, let’s examine the actual facts and scientific evidence on file to see what we can do about it.

Today’s Nevada COVID-19 check-up: Infection rates and new daily caseloads remain very high, and hospitalizations remain at “winter surge” era highs. Delta now accounts for over half of Nevada’s confirmed COVID-19 cases, and almost 44% of Nevadans are fully vaccinated. Clark County’s outbreak remains alarmingly severe, but the Reno-Tahoe region and the rest of Nevada are also experiencing worsening outbreaks.
COVID-19, COVID-19 Vaccines, vaccine science, health care
Photo by Andrew Davey

According to Covid Act Now, Nevada’s statewide COVID-19 infection rate remains dangerously high at 1.21, meaning that every 100 COVID-19 infections will lead to another 121 new infections. Only Lyon (0.86), Elko (0.90) and Churchill (0.94) Counties have infection rates under 1.00, while Lander and Pershing Counties are at 1.00 exactly, and Humboldt (1.04), Nye (1.07), Carson City (1.13), Washoe (1.17), Douglas (1.19), Clark (1.20!), White Pine (1.28!), and Lincoln (1.31!) Counties are all suffering more rapid spread. Statewide, we’re seeing 27.6 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 per day. Humboldt (0.8), Lander (2.6), Churchill (6.9), Eureka (7.0), Washoe (9.5), and Lyon (9.7) Counties are reporting under ten new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 per day, while Carson City (10.5) and Douglas (11.1), Elko (15.2), Esmeralda (16.4), White Pine (19.4), Nye (20.3!), Mineral (28.5!), Lincoln (30.3!), and Clark (33.7!) Counties are all suffering higher caseloads.

According to the official Nevada Health Response dashboard and The Nevada Independent’s COVID-19 data tracker, Nevada’s 14-day test positivity average based on “new positives as a percentage of new test encounters” has jumped even higher to 13.5%. According to the Mayo Clinic, our statewide seven-day test positivity average has finally dropped a little to 16.86%, though that’s still far above where we were in May and June. And according to the Scripps Institute’s Outbreak.info, the Delta variant (B.1617.2) has spread quite rapidly here in Nevada since May: Delta accounts for 85% of our new COVID-19 cases in the last 30 days, 76% of our new COVID-19 cases in the last 60 days, and 56% of Nevada’s cumulative confirmed COVID-19 cases.

This week, our COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to climb. According to Nevada Health Response, our hospitals are treating 968 confirmed COVID-19 patients and an additional 78 patients who probably have COVID-19, for a total of 1,046 confirmed and suspected COVID-19 hospitalized patients – the highest since February. Nevada public health officials are reporting a total of 5,837 confirmed COVID-19 deaths as of mid-day today, and we’re averaging over 10 COVID-19 deaths per day for the first time since March.

According to the CDC’s COVID-19 Data Tracker (as of yesterday), 3,245,540 total doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been delivered to Nevada, and 2,923,004 COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered and recorded. 1,623,683 patients have received at least one vaccine dose, meaning an estimated 52.7% of Nevadans (and more specifically, 64.6% of Nevada adults) have at least initiated the vaccination process, and 1,352,332 of these patients are now fully vaccinated, meaning an estimated 43.9% of Nevadans (and more specifically, 54.5% of Nevada adults) are fully vaccinated. (Editor’s Note: I posted a special “This Week in Corona Scams” on COVID-19 vaccine disinformation last week, and we’ll probably post another COVID-19 update later this week.)  

“Fully vaccinated people are protected from severe illness. And we’ve always said that communities and individuals need to make the decisions that are right for them based on what’s going on in their local areas.” 
– CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, at the July 22 White House COVID-19 Briefing
Joe Biden, White House, White House COVID-19 Response Team, COVID-19
Screenshot by Andrew Davey

On July 17, Los Angeles County, California, reinstated its universal mask mandate amidst the Delta variant fueling a rapid rise of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations. At the time a few epidemiologists suggested it’s unnecessary, and a whole lot of politicians and pundits mocked L.A. County’s new mask mandate as “alarmist” and “nanny state”. But now that Clark County has adopted a partial mask mandate for employees, and now that other West Coast municipal authorities are either recommending universal masking or reinstating some kind of mask mandate, we must again ask: Are stronger public health safety rules truly “unnecessary” and “alarmist”, or did America move too far and too fast to abandon public health safety measures with the Delta variant emerging and our vaccination numbers lagging?

During last Thursday’s White House COVID-19 Briefing, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky declined to waver, even after The Washington Post reported that White House officials have privately discussed whether to revise federal mask guidance (again): “The CDC recommendations haven’t changed. Fully vaccinated people are protected from severe illness. And we’ve always said that communities and individuals need to make the decisions that are right for them based on what’s going on in their local areas.”

Later on, Walensky added, “Local communities have to look at what is going on locally, as we have a very heterogeneous country right now.” And when asked whether the CDC may (again) change its official guidance considering the sudden surge of Delta and the ongoing trickle of breakthrough infections, Walensky reiterated, “If you’re vaccinated, you have exceptional levels of protection from the vaccine, and you may choose to add an extra layer of protection by putting on your mask, and that’s a very individual choice. That has been consistent with our CDC guidance since we put it out.”

“Masks should be used as part of a comprehensive strategy of measures to suppress transmission and save lives.” 
– The World Health Organization, on how to prevent COVID-19 transmission

While the CDC’s guidance on masks has been evolving since spring, the United Nations’ World Health Organization (WHO) has been consistent for over a year: “Masks should be used as part of a comprehensive strategy of measures to suppress transmission and save lives. […] If COVID-19 is spreading in your community, stay safe by taking some simple precautions, such as physical distancing, wearing a mask, keeping rooms well ventilated, avoiding crowds, cleaning your hands, and coughing into a bent elbow or tissue.”

Last Thursday, Dr. Walensky insisted that the WHO offers different recommendations because the COVID-19 vaccines are not as readily available in most of the rest of the world. But even when specifically asked in the context of what fully vaccinated individuals should do, Dr. Mariangela Simao, WHO assistant director-general for access to medicines and health products, stated, “Vaccine alone won’t stop community transmission. People need to continue to use masks consistently, be in ventilated spaces, hand hygiene […] the physical distance, avoid crowding. This still continues to be extremely important, even if you’re vaccinated when you have a community transmission ongoing.”

Back in April, we noticed an emerging consensus among epidemiologists and virologists that the CDC’s guidance on vaccinated Americans ditching masks appeared to be scientifically sound. However, there was always the caveat of how many Americans become fully vaccinated. Now that we still have a significant portion of Americans who remain unvaccinated – some because they’re children, some because they’re immunocompromised, and some because they choose not to – shouldn’t we adapt to the reality we have instead of wishcasting based on something (in this case – 80%+ herd immunity) that we still don’t have?

“The success of the vaccine is based on the prevention of illness.” 
– Dr. Anthony Fauci, at the July 22 White House COVID-19 Briefing
Joe Biden, White House, White House COVID-19 Response Team, COVID-19
Screenshot by Andrew Davey

Another reason for the renewed focus on masking is the growing concern over breakthrough infections. According to a new poll of 1,949 fully vaccinated adults from Survivor Corps, an advocacy organization for COVID-19 survivors, only 2.3% suffered breakthrough infections, but 55% of those who did suffer breakthrough infections are now experiencing “Long COVID“, where researchers are finding evidence of long-term respiratory and neurological damage in some “long haulers”. Before anyone even tries to get this twisted, keep in mind that a grand total of 1.23% of the fully vaccinated poll respondents now experience “Long COVID“, and the overall 2.3% breakthrough infection rate falls in line with the scientific data we have thus far. Still, shouldn’t this be enough of a reason for us to take public health more seriously?

At last Thursday’s White House briefing, NIAID Director and Senior Biden Medical Advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci tried to address concerns over breakthrough infections this way: “You have a failure of a vaccine when, actually, you get frank disease. In other words, you haven’t prevented the disease caused by the virus or the pathogen in question. […] So what we’re talking about when we talk about infection after vaccination, which is clearly being discussed now in the context of the Delta variant — by no means does that mean that you’re dealing with an unsuccessful vaccine. The success of the vaccine is based on the prevention of illness.”

Joe Biden, White House, White House COVID-19 Response Team, COVID-19
Screenshot by Andrew Davey

As per usual, Dr. Fauci pulled out his slides full of data to show the effectiveness of the vaccines in clinical trials and in the real world. And in response to questions on whether he’s still convinced of the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccine’s safety and efficacy, Fauci declared, “The J&J vaccine […] is a very effective vaccine. There is no reason to believe right now that people who have taken the J&J vaccine are in need of a booster dose of any sort.” 

Though the overall results thus far look good for J&J, one new study that’s awaiting peer review suggests J&J doesn’t perform as well against the Delta variant. Medical experts outside the Biden administration are currently split on whether J&J vaccine recipients should seek a Pfizer or Moderna booster shot, but we still have ample evidence proving that the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna mRNA vaccines are highly effective after two doses – a new “gold standard” study of U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (V.A.) patients that’s been published in Annals of Internal Medicine shows that both Pfizer-BioNTech (96%) and Moderna (98%) remain incredibly effective at preventing symptomatic infection.

We know the COVID-19 vaccines work, but we also know they can only do so much when we still have a critical mass of unvaccinated people and a large amount of community spread. What can we do now?

Whether the full truth of the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines against newer variants like Delta and Lambda emerges closer to the Israeli government data of COVID-19 patients in their country or the study results that keep pouring in here in the U.S., it’s becoming quite clear that breakthrough infections can happen. Even though breakthrough infections are highly unlikely to send vaccinated patients to the hospital, there may be a tiny but real possibility that a very small number of vaccinated patients end up with “Long COVID” should they become infected. And even though breakthrough infections are far less dangerous for the vaccinated patients themselves, there’s at least a small possibility for them to spread COVID-19 to unvaccinated patients (including small children and the immunocompromised who currently can’t get vaccinated) who face far greater risk of severe disease.

So what can we do about it? Actually, there are multiple actions available: We can continue to encourage more vaccination that will lead to lower spread, we can mask up in enclosed and crowded spaces to take immediate action to lower spread, and we can limit our exposure to the riskiest environments (mainly large indoor [and largely maskless] crowds) where COVID-19 spreads most easily. 

Just like we utilize multiple tools like requiring seat belts, adding airbags in cars/breathing aids in airplanes, and mandating basic safety standards in automobile and airplane design to make driving and flying as safe as humanly possible, we now have several tools available to slow further spread of COVID-19 and disrupt the development of new variants. We just have to use all the available tools in order to protect ourselves and each other.

If you have further questions about COVID-19 and your health, check Immunize Nevada for more information on vaccine availability in your area, check Nevada Health Response for testing in your area, and check Nevada 211 for more health care resources. If you’re in need of additional aid, check the Nevada Current’s and Battle Born Progress’ resource guides. If you can afford proper treatment and you are fortunate enough to help others in need, please donate to larger operations like Direct Relief and Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, and to local groups like Three Square. And for goodness sake, please maintain best practices to help stop the spread.

The cover photo is a screenshot taken by me. This story was updated at 12:05 PM to include more up-to-date COVID-19 data.

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