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Missouri State Epidemiologist: Vaccines Alone May Not Stop Delta Variant

MD Younus, of South County, recieves his first dose of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine at a vaccination event put on by The Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis.
MD Younus, of South County, recieves his first dose of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine at a vaccination event put on by The Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis.

Coronavirus cases are on the rise in Missouri, sparked by the fast-spreading delta variant. Federal health officials say the state is among the country's hot spots for the new mutated virus, and health officials are urging the state to redouble its efforts to vaccinate Missourians against the coronavirus.

Disease experts from the state Department of Health and Senior Services say the variant, which is easier to catch and transmit, now accounts for close to one-third of variant cases of the coronavirus in the Midwest.

Faced with a 25% rise in the number of new cases statewide since last week, St. Louis, St. Louis County and Jefferson County health officials announced this week that even vaccinated people should wear masks indoors if they don’t know if others have received the COVID-19 vaccine.

St. Louis Public Radio's Sarah Fentem asked Dr. George Turabelidze, Missouri state epidemiologist, about how residents can stay safe from the new variant:

Sarah Fentem: Do people in Missouri need to worry about wearing masks now that the Delta variant is such a big problem here?

Dr. George Turabelidze: Regarding masking at this point, there is not enough data or even direct recommendation from CDC for everybody to revert back to universal mask wearing anytime, anywhere.

But what would make sense is to constantly assess your risk. We have to be, all of us, a little bit of an epidemiologist. … You have to constantly assess your risk: Am I among people in a place that is very crowded, and I don't know how many people could be infected there? Am I entering a building that has bad ventilation and a lot of people? Am I among somebody sneezing and coughing? Then I don't care if I’m vaccinated or not, I may still pull my mask out and put it on.

Fentem: Do we know the extent that this delta variant is spreading in Missouri in particular?

Turabelidze: We have increased transmission rates. We have temporarily, for a little while now, the highest rates [in the country], and this is coupled with an increasing proportion of the delta variant. So it is obvious this increase in cases has to do with increasing presence over the delta variant.

The consensus among experts is that we will see outbreaks ... not sweeping entire states, but it will be pockets in different places, very localized, where the virus manages to find those pockets of unvaccinated people, pockets where the mitigation is nonexistent. And that's where the outbreaks will thrive.

And we can say that happened in Missouri as well. Those counties and parts of Missouri that are experiencing a rise in cases right now, they do lag behind in their vaccination rates.

Fentem: So are we seeing the delta variant in Missouri hit places that have lower vaccination rates as a whole?

Turabelidze: Most people who blame the low vaccination rates are probably correct. But I don't want to convey the impression that this is the only thing, if we can fix the vaccinations everything will be just fine. It is a major component, but it's not the only component. My concern is that in parts of Missouri, [there’s] kind of complacency setting in. And the complacency is making people completely abandon mitigation, social distancing, masking.

Fentem: And I'm so happy you brought that up, because I was going to bring up Joplin, which has a pretty high vaccination rate. And yet that's around where you're seeing some of these big outbreaks. What do you think is going on there? Does that indicate that vaccinations aren't enough to keep this particular wave from spreading?

Turabelidze: Yeah, because you know, most places we have not reached the so-called herd immunity level. And herd immunity is not something permanent, “you reach that level and then you are done.” No, it is kind of a moving target because it also depends on what kind of variant is circulating. And every time we have a variant that is more contagious, more transmissible, that herd immunity target is moving up. And of course Joplin has better numbers of vaccination compared to others, but nobody is anywhere close to what herd immunity should be to stop such a transmissible virus.

Fentem: And so the question that obviously follows from that is, if vaccinations are only one part of the puzzle here, what are the other things that residents should be doing to keep this particular variant in particular from spreading?

Turabelidze: As I said, we have to maintain our guard and not subject ourselves to unnecessary risk. If you're around someone who has a sore throat and coughing, or runny nose, don't assume they don't have coronavirus. Assume that everybody has coronavirus who has some kind of respiratory symptoms.

Fentem: Missouri’s vaccination rate is about 40% right now, which you said is lower than you'd like to see. Is the emergence of this variant a sign that the state needs to redouble its vaccination efforts?

Turabelidze: Yes. Even before we realized the increase in the delta variant in Missouri … we were alarmed by a sharp drop in our daily vaccination rates, from over 50,000 a day back in April to, you know, to a quarter of that number in June.

This virus showed the unique ability to reinvent itself and come up with new mutations that keep it going. And there are other mutations and other variants already on the horizon. If we are all in this fight, we have to vaccinate as much as we can our cells to not allow this virus to circulate and then develop new variants, and then having more and more outbreaks.

We need as a society to think that we are all in on this. It's not like “you guys vaccinate, I just sit around and wait.” If everybody thinks like that, we will never reach the vaccination levels, we need to stop this epidemic.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio