While Maryland’s COVID-19 vaccination metrics are better than that of most states with about 84% of residents partially vaccinated and about 60% fully vaccinated-significant outreach and education must be a continued priority as about 900,000 Marylanders still are unvaccinated, Deputy Health Secretary Dr. Jinlene Chan told MarylandReporter.com on Wednesday.
Below is an edited excerpt of an interview with Chan. The deputy secretary discussed the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, protocol for booster shots, hospitalization metrics, and the controversy over vaccine mandates.
MarylandReporter.com: Is a vaccinated person less likely to transmit COVID-19 than an unvaccinated person?
Chan: The purpose of the vaccines and developing them so quickly and pushing them out was to prevent severe disease and death. That was the goal. A secondary benefit has been that it also seems to be able to prevent infection and more mild infections and people’s ability to transmit the virus. What has changed that calculus a little bit more recently is that the COVID-19 virus has continued to mutate.
The Alpha variant that we saw come through in the spring was more transmissible than what we had seen before. And the Delta variant that we are still seeing now is even more transmissible. It is not a cut and dry. The bottom line is the goal of the vaccines are primarily to prevent severe disease and death. And with some of the new variants it is thought that even among the vaccinated, while they are still protected against severe disease and complications-they may still be able to transmit the virus.
MarylandReporter.com: Thus far the only COVID-19 booster shot that has been approved for use is the Pfizer BioNTech. If an individual received either the Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccine for their initial dose or doses-are they still eligible for the Pfizer booster?
Chan: That is not what is recommended right now. This is a question that I know a lot of people are asking. What about Moderna and J&J? I know that is top of mind for everyone. I think that that will come soon. But I do not have a timeframe in terms of approvals for those boosters.
MarylandReporter.com: Does the COVID-19 booster shot contain anything different than what is in the initial doses of the vaccine?
Chan: No. It is the same. And in terms of the safety profile for a third dose of the Pfizer, what was found was that the side affects appear to be very similar to what people experienced with the second dose of Pfizer. The sore arm, some muscle aches, low-grade fever, and some tenderness at the site of injection. Those were common and usually went away after two days.
MarylandReporter.com: How important is it to wait 6-8 months after having received the initial doses of the vaccine before getting the booster shot?
Chan: For certain individuals, those who are aged 65 and older, those who are living in congregate settings-those are the people who remain at the highest risk for complications. Particularly if there is some waning immunity from their primary series. So we would encourage those individuals to get vaccinated. There are a larger group of people who are at risk because of their occupation or who have underlying medical conditions as well who should consider whether a booster will be helpful for them.
MarylandReporter.com: When the pandemic started 19 months ago the overwhelming majority of COVID-related hospitalizations throughout the state were among the elderly and the immunocompromised. Is that still the case or has the trajectory changed?
Chan: People who are older tend to be more likely to have complications from COVID-19 and a lot of it is because they tend to have underlying conditions. The very elderly have less functional reserve to be able to combat illness.
Right now we have 95% of our age 65 and older population who have been vaccinated, compared to around 50% or 60% of those in the younger adult age group who are vaccinated. That is a pretty large differential.
The percent of people who are now in the hospital in that younger age group is much larger as a proportion than we saw in the winter wave, which was our biggest wave so far.
MarylandReporter.com: Some health care workers have raised objections to the state’s requirement that they get vaccinated against the virus. Do you have any concerns about attrition in the health care field?
Chan: There are a lot of different factors that are in play both here in Maryland and nationwide. We are now 19 months into a pandemic of unprecedented proportions and people are very tired. I think that is a continuing concern that we bolster our critical health care workers across the state. And that is what we endeavor to do is to provide some additional avenues.
People who go into the health care field do it to care for their patients, to care for people, and to have them be better. But the fact that some health care workers still pose a risk to their patients by not getting vaccinated is the reason that we want to make this a high priority for them, their families, and the people that they serve.
MarylandReporter.com: Hypothetically speaking, do you think that a universal vaccine mandate for the state’s school-age children would put a significant dent in transmission rates?
Chan: I think that would be hard to say. Of the vaccine eligible population we have still have roughly 900,000 people across the state who remain unvaccinated. They have not even received one dose. And that includes people of all age groups. But primarily in the younger age group.
I think whether it is in schools or other professions we have to strongly encourage ask that everyone get vaccinated. That is the responsibility to the people that we serve. I think it is important to continue to educate people about the vaccine and how important it is.
The numbers do not lie. We saw the impact of the vaccine even in the spring before Delta. We continue to see the benefits even now with declining hospitalizations.