WASHINGTON — Earlier in the pandemic, as lockdowns dragged on and local businesses shuttered their doors, vaccines felt like the light at the end of the tunnel. Everyone from medical experts and pundits to Redditors shared their anticipation for a lifesaving shot that would make our pandemic woes feel like a more distant memory.
But now, vaccinations are a reality. And most of us are already vaccinated in the D.C. area.
As of Aug. 8, nearly 65% of residents in the District have at least one dose of the vaccine. In Virginia, it’s close to 61% and in Maryland, it’s a little over 78%. But there’s still room for improvement and with the Delta variant on the move, the pandemic tunnel feels like we’re all a lot farther from the end than we thought.
So what’s next for this pandemic? Are renewed mask mandates across the area simply the tip of the iceberg when it comes to restrictions? Will we be right back in quarantine by next month? And why is any of this necessary, anyway, if you got a vaccine months ago?
WUSA9 went to a Johns Hopkins biocontainment expert to answer all of the questions you may have about what some of the recent changes mean for the future.
Christopher Sulmonte, Project Administrator at the Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit, said it all boils down to the effects of the Delta variant, which is thought to be much more transmissible than those before it. Sulmonte explained the resulting mandates are based on how the variant affects the vaccinated, which in turn, affects the unvaccinated.
"Generally speaking, [for vaccinated people] we've seen very low mortality, very low hospitalization and very low severe disease, which is great and indicates how important vaccines are in battling against this pandemic," he said. "The thing that we have also noticed though, on rare occasions, in these breakthrough infections, people are either asymptomatic or have mild, moderate disease with this virus. And the CDC recently came out with a report that indicated that the viral load among those who were infected and vaccinated seems to be at a similar amount compared to those that were unvaccinated, which is concerning because that could indicate likely transmission."
Therefore, Sulmonte explained that since the report casts doubt on the idea that vaccinated people can't transmit the virus, masking does indeed make sense.
"One of the things we are still looking into and again, we're going to be learning a lot about this variant as it continues to spread, but if you're vaccinated and asymptomatic, does that mean you still have a high viral load compared to someone who has the vaccine and is symptomatic? The differences could be nuanced."
Plus, Sulmonte emphasized that we still have a significant part of the population that has not gotten vaccinated and that there are individuals that are still at risk who are immunocompromised, who cannot get vaccinated. "So because of this, there is a reasonable assumption to be concerned about how this variant is going to spread among communities."
He also highlighted that those unvaccinated who are concerned about the Delta variant should certainly consider getting vaccinated as soon as possible - it's still the best-known form of prevention from serious illness and death.
Q: If masking is productive because vaccinated people could still be spreading the virus, is it reasonable to expect that other restrictions will soon follow?
A: Sulmonte said there's still hope that simply donning a mask may tide us over - at least for the immediate future if cases and hospitalizations don't skyrocket.
"Do I think it'll get all the way down to quarantine, lockdown? No, I hope not. Because that's exactly why we're getting vaccinated, to minimize the extra steps that we have to take. And so with that, hopefully, we'll be able to see minimal changes happening."
Sulmonte explained that it's rising vaccination rates that can help.
"We have an extremely powerful tool, which is vaccination and that can do a lot of the heavy lifting that we had to worry about before," he said. "So focusing on that effort, I think we start to minimize concerns for other sorts of mitigation tools we have to use . . . Now that obviously can change based off the information we receive about the variant, new information about the vaccinated population and hopefully, increased vaccination among communities."
Q: Right now the Delta variant is making headlines, but it's not the only one and there may be more on the horizon. So historically, what happens in this kind of situation? Is there going to be a new variant every so often and we'll have to do these various measures, like masking, regularly?
A: "I think a great reference point to use is influenza, which is something people are used to. Every year, we have a new vaccine that's basically responding to the ever-changing, different variations of the flu virus that we run into. Now, the big thing I want to know is that coronavirus, compared to a flu virus, is different in that the mutation of the coronavirus is much, much slower than something like influenza . . . we have the tools to minimize this from happening because as individuals get vaccinated and the virus isn't able to have as many hosts, transmission decreases. And this is why is we saw that the alpha variant went down because it was so hard to transmit. This delta variant is easier to transmit. That's why we're seeing this go up. And so the hope is that as we vaccinate, this will become less common among [COVID-19].
Q: What about booster shots? Is that something to look forward to, which will likely ease the concern surrounding these new variants?
A: "I think just like how we're learning with the Delta variants, we need to continue to collect data; that's why we do long-term studies on vaccinations, for this reason, to see if boosters are required. So I'm very happy to see both the companies that produce these vaccines collaborating with federal entities that are involved in order to collect the data to see if boosters are required," Sulmonte said.
"Based on the current data we have, that is not the suggestion, that we need boosters - but just like everything, that could potentially change. I don't have a crystal ball, but I do think that the tools are in place for us to determine if that's required in the future."
Q: If vaccination can make such a difference when it comes to fighting the pandemic and these new variants, what advice do you have for those attempting to sway friends, family or neighbors who have remained hesitant?
A: "I think in all honesty, a lot of it is talking to those you trust. From my own experience, family members have been incredibly helpful in convincing," Sulmonte shared.
"Whether that is connecting somebody to an expert and kind of being the middleman on their behalf. If you are someone that got vaccinated, and someone's concerned about the side effects and you got vaccinated six months ago and you still feel okay - show that reassurance."
Have more questions we didn't get to? Text WUSA9 and we'll put them to the experts: (202) 895-5599.