PROVIDENCE – “I'm very worried.”
So declared Dr. Ashish Jha this week as the highly contagious Delta variant ravages many parts of the U.S. and some models suggest “as many as 35 million Americans may get infected over the next couple of months, the next few months,” according to the pandemic expert.
That, Jha said, “is an astronomically large number.”
And it is being driven in large part by the numbers of people who decline to be vaccinated -- although more people are getting shots recently than earlier in the summer, said Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health.
“This variant is going to spare no one,” the scientist/physician said. “If you are unvaccinated, you are almost surely going to encounter this virus up close and personal. All of us will -- but for those of us who are vaccinated, we're going to encounter it as a vaccinated person and most likely will not get infected.”
As he and many other public-health expert have repeatedly now for months, Jha urged anyone who is unvaccinated to get inoculated. That will help in the long run, but not immediately, as weeks must pass after receiving the two-shot Pfizer and Moderna products and the one-shot Johnson & Johnson before full immunity is reached.
Speaking this week while recording the 34th episode of the “COVID: What Comes Next” podcast, available from The Providence Journal and the USA TODAY NETWORK, Jha also addressed the record numbers of coronavirus infections, hospitalizations, and deaths among children in some parts of America.
“We had a whole year of minimizing the infection of kids, saying ‘kids don't get sick, it's no big deal,’ ” Jha said. “Kids thankfully don’t get very sick, but some of them do and we want to be careful. The questions people are asking me right now are: ‘Is the Delta variant particularly bad for kids? Do kids get sicker with the Delta variant than they with Alpha, or the version from last year?’
“The short answer is, I don't know. We've been scouring the data but we don't have good data on this. So then people point to the fact that a lot of kids are getting hospitalized and are in ICUs and they say ‘how do you explain that?’ The answer is a lot of places are having very large infection numbers and if you have a massive surge, kids are not immune. They're going to get infected. Most of them will do very well, but a small number will end up getting sick and hospitalized.”
On the topic of booster shots, Jha spoke about some fully vaccinated people who “are going surreptitiously into a [pharmacy] and acting like this is their first shot and then not showing up for their second shot. It's a mess because it totally ruins our record-keeping. Who then knows how many people have gotten vaccinated, who's gotten two shots, who's gotten three shots?”
Jha said “this is not based on science” but then expressed the hope that the CDC, which is studying the possible need for booster shots, “should make a determination… they should guide people and they've got to push this forward. Otherwise you're going to have, you know, hundreds of millions of Americans winging it on their own. And that never turns out well.”
During the taping, Jha also answered an audience question. A doctor in Pennsylvania wrote:
“In the July 1 episode, Dr. Jha said there was no evidence of asymptomatic immunized people spreading COVID. Is this there any further data on this? Can pre-symptomatic immunized people spread COVID?”
The pandemic expert’s answer, in part:
“If the question is ‘can vaccinated people spread the virus?’ the answer is yes. We've seen it, but all the cases that I'm aware of have happened while the vaccinated person was symptomatic. What does that mean? It means that they were coughing, they had a fever when they were spreading. That's important because if you have a fever and a cough, you can isolate yourself.
“The big question is: ‘What if you are vaccinated and you feel well, you're totally fine, can you be infected and spreading?’ We just don't know. Most of the data suggests no, but I hope you hear enough uncertainty in my voice to be very clear that I honestly don't know.”