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June 3, 2021

It has been more than a year since COVID-19 became part of everyday conversation. As the pandemic wears on, concerns and precautions change. 

By May 2021, the state confirmed more than 489,000 cases with more than 8,000 deaths. The percent positive has fallen to around 3.5 percent, but there’s still reason to be careful of the novel disease. 

BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Matt Bartels gives an update for what is happening with the virus right now. 

What is top of mind with COVID-19 right now? 

From the pandemic perspective, the big question is “When will we reach herd immunity?” The two main ways to achieve herd immunity are through vaccinations and natural infection, referring to people who have had COVID-19 and have recovered. 

The other thing that is top of mind for many is the COVID-19 variants. Will those mutations be meaningful enough to create surges in outbreaks? This is now essentially a race between vaccinations to achieve effective herd immunity and the emergence of variants. Right now, it looks like the vaccines are proving to be remarkably effective, which is outstanding news. More experts are optimistic that we should be able to have this under control. That doesn’t mean the virus or the risks will go away, but we should get to a state where we can control the intensity of the disease spread. 

What does it mean to have COVID-19 “under control”?

Most experts agree COVID-19 will be with us in the future. We will not be in a worldwide pandemic state, as we are currently. While much of this is not certain, experts believe COVID-19 will likely be more of a seasonal infection, like influenza, for which we will have a vaccine that will be given at some regular interval. What we don’t know is whether health experts will recommend vaccinations as an annual event or something needed every couple of years. This is what scientists are tracking and trying to understand. A lot of this will depend on the variants and when we can reach herd immunity. 

How is COVID-19 similar to influenza in that way? 

The coronavirus is a virus similar to influenza. The flu travels the globe. As it travels, it mutates. Therefore, the flu shots have to be modified every year because new mutations become dominant. Scientists who track these viruses are good at predicting which ones are going to be dominant by the time the flu season impacts the United States. The flu vaccine is more effective certain years than others. The good thing is, with a flu vaccine, even when it’s not a perfect match, it still confers some degree of protection and immunity. One thing is certain: The flu vaccine is highly effective at preventing serious infection or illness. 

We are seeing a similar situation with COVID-19. Early signs indicate the situation might be similar with the coronavirus. If the vaccines aren’t a perfect match to a variant, we will still see some protective effect. There is a lot of hope that, even if variants continue to emerge, we will be able to modify the vaccine so boosters will be more effective to a particular strain of the virus that is dominant at that time. 

Is the pandemic over? 

No. It is not over. If you look around the globe and even around our country, there are some places where the situation is still very troublesome. We should be concerned about that. There is good reason to be hopeful, but we also have to be vigilant. This is a new virus, and we have been fortunate the variants that have emerged so far don’t seem to cause more disease. There is the possibility of a more aggressive variant that causes more severe illness. For that reason, we still need to take precautions. We recommend following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Are we close to herd immunity? 

We are getting closer. The is no absolute number for reaching herd immunity. We should be striving for the maximum number of people to get vaccinated that we can. There is a term for people who decline vaccination but benefit from herd immunity: “hiding in the herd.” There is a danger there. If we have many people electing to “hide within the herd,” there could be continued slow spread, and the virus can continue to mutate among those that are unvaccinated. We have seen this occur with other illnesses, like measles. 

When parents received misinformation about the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, we saw outbreaks of measles and a lot of disease and death from that. We should learn from history and try not to repeat it with other diseases. We shouldn’t rest on the fact that things are getting better. We need to encourage and educate more people on the benefits of getting vaccinated to win the battle over this virus and control it. It is unlikely we will see this virus go away completely. But we can take control of the situation. We have the tools as a population, and we have access to vaccines. It isn’t realistic that we can reach herd immunity soon enough through natural infection. If we do that, there will be much more unnecessary suffering. Early data shows vaccines are highly effective at preventing hospitalization and death. 

Should people get the second dose of the vaccine? 

Yes. Some individuals may experience more side effects after the second dose because the immune system is already primed. These side effects are generally not severe. The vaccines have so far proven to be remarkably safe. In general, vaccines have done more for improving health than any other medical advancement in the last century. It is important we do not take those medical advances for granted. 

Anything else you’d like to add? 

In addition to all the challenges we’ve been through since this started, it is important to look back and appreciate how quickly we adjusted and how far we have come. Even 10 years ago, I don’t think anyone could have imagined we would be talking optimistically at this point of a worldwide pandemic of a novel disease. Let’s be thankful, too, we live in a time when vaccines and medications to treat illnesses are effective and have evolved to a point where we can be hopeful and confident this is something we can control. We all have to take a step back and be thankful there is hope. 

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