NEW ORLEANS — A local doctor who is studying just how fast the coronavirus is changing, says we are in a race against time to get everyone to understand the importance of getting a vaccine, especially if we want to have herd immunity by the fall.
A timeline graph is the coronavirus's family tree. The original virus now has “great-great-grandchildren.” The colorful dots on the graph represent different variants, meaning the virus' genetic make up is changing. It's mutating almost right before our eyes.
“These descendants compete with each other, so if one of them is very good at spreading, it's going to take over,” explained Dr. Lucio Miele, Chairman of Genetics at LSU Health Sciences Center.
Dr. Miele is tracking variants from nose swabs in the New Orleans area, and in just the last six months of 2020, he found 28 variants. The current vaccines do work against them, but if enough people don't get vaccinated quickly, the virus will have more chances to infect, multiply, change and outsmart the vaccine.
“The more viruses you have, the more likely it is that a change is going to happen by chance, that makes the virus worse,” he said.
“Again, the time is of essence here. We have to act fast and do not loosen our public health restrictions,” said Dr. Susanne Straif-Bourgeois, an LSUHSC Epidemiologist who specializes in Infectious Diseases.
Dr. Straif-Bourgeois says everyone, including those who caught the virus, needs a vaccine.
Population of La. = 4,649,000
75% = 3,486,750
Completed vaccines = 654,876
Still to complete = 2,831,874
Days to complete by 9/1/2021 = 160
Needed per day = 17,699
Average complete per day in March approx. =10,847
Let's do the math for herd immunity. if you really want to go to Saints games, Jazz and French Quarter Fests this fall, we need at least 75 percent to be vaccinated. We looked at numbers for the fully vaccinated, not people who have gotten only one of two doses, To get there by September 1, we need 17,699 people each day to get a vaccine. Right now, according to the Louisiana Department of Health, we average only around 10,000 to 11,000 a day. And while the number is picking up, as high as 16,000 on some days in March, it's not enough.
“So the sooner we get up there, to the 70 percent, the better we are off in the long term,” said Dr. Straif-Bourgeois.
It is important to note that some doctors think we need as high as 80 percent vaccinated for herd immunity. Dr. Straif-Bourgeois does not think people with natural immunity should be included in the numbers, because it is unknown how long immunity lasts from contracting the natural virus.
“If we don't drastically limit the spread of the infection now, it is very likely we are all going to need boosters,” said Dr. Miele, referring to getting vaccinated, wearing masks and physical distancing.
If variants that are resistant to antibodies made from being vaccinated become predominant, at the end of the year we could all have to be back in vaccine lines again.
If booster shots are needed for new variants, the genetics in the mRNA vaccines could be changed in as fast as four to six weeks.