The Race Against COVID Variants
Errol Buntuyan, M.D.Summer is in full swing here on Maui. Businesses catering to tourism are almost at full capacity, the road to and from Lahaina, Kihei, and Pa‘ia are once again filling with traffic. The feeling of normalcy and pre-COVID pandemic life prevails. No longer are we required to wear masks outdoors and people who are vaccinated are gathering in larger groups while enjoying close social interactions once again. Vaccination rates on Maui are ever so slowly trending up. But is this vaccination rate rising fast enough?
Despite our strides to getting back to pre-pandemic life, we are continuing to hear reports of COVID variants. The Delta variant has mutations that make it replicate at a faster rate and it can evade the body’s immune system. The World Health Organization has called it the “fastest and fittest” variant yet. The latest Delta variant has proven to be the most transmissible of all mutations and causes more severe symptoms and illness than the other variants thus far. The Delta variant arose in India a few months ago, spread across Europe, the United Kingdom and has now made its way through the U.S. to land on the shores of Hawai‘i. It is only a matter time where it will be the prevailing strain of infection.
There were early concerns this variant has lowered the COVID vaccine efficacy rate. The good news is that Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson have shown to be as effective or even better in protecting against getting the Delta strain. Those who are vaccinated will be protected and not be hospitalized or die from COVID.
The fact these mutations are more fit and efficient means the COVID virus is smartly adapting with each replication and outbreak. The longer people hesitate on getting vaccinated, the more opportunity for the virus to spread, replicate and mutate to a form resistant to the shots. Experts ultimately fear a variant will come along that will render the current vaccines ineffective.
We must stop the spread of this virus by getting vaccinated. The initial US goal was to get 70 percent of the population immunized to slow down and stop COVID. With these variants arising among the unvaccinated, experts feel 80–85 percent of the population need to be vaccinated to reach herd immunity and halt COVID.
Here on Maui, we still have a large number of people who are hesitant to get the vaccine. They often cite the virus is unsafe, it contains fetal tissue and the side effects to getting the vaccines are debilitating. These reasons however are not scientifically proven nor are they factual. The COVID vaccines are safe and effective with over 320 million shots already distributed in this country. The vaccines do not contain human fetal tissue, the side effects are mild (arm pain, fatigue, headache, muscle pain) and transient (lasts 1–3 days). Reports of adverse events from the vaccines such as myocarditis and blood clots are exceedingly rare and should not deter anyone from receiving them. The symptoms from vaccine side effects are certainly not as severe as death from COVID.
Thus far, all those infected with COVID who die or get sick enough to require care in our Maui Health System hospitals with severe symptoms have been unvaccinated. Once the unvaccinated are infected with COVID, up to 30 percent who survive can have long lasting symptoms of fatigue, cough and brain fog. Having these long-term symptoms that can last months is debilitating and a strain to our healthcare system. Travel restrictions and COVID testing are still enforced for those unvaccinated. The unvaccinated are the main carriers and transmission vectors of COVID, putting others around them at risk for infection. The development of more variants that are more contagious and resistant to these vaccines is imminent as this virus continues to infect and spread through the unvaccinated communities.
In essence, not getting the vaccine has worrisome consequences. Our current rate of COVID vaccinations on Maui is not fast enough and distribution has slowed down. If you are already vaccinated, please have a conversation with those that are resistant and hesitant to get it. Tell them the reasons why you got the COVID vaccine. Please help them see the risks of remaining unvaccinated can not only cause them severe illness and death but will jeopardize our fight against COVID and will further prolong the duration of this pandemic.
Errol Buntuyan, M.D., is a Family Medicine Practitioner and the Physician in Charge of Maui Primary Care at Kaiser Permanente. Born in Quezon City and raised in Southern California, he has been practicing medicine on Maui since 2007. Dr. Buntuyan promotes whole food, plant based nutrition, regular physical activity, stress mindfulness and sleep hygiene as keys to optimum health and wellness. He enjoys cooking, playing tennis and travel.