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COURT HOUSE - One year and 80 days after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a pandemic, many county residents and visitors are mask-free and confidently interacting in and out of doors. Health metrics support the confidence.

The active cases stand at 53. The past week (May 25-31) saw no new fatalities. Long-term care facilities have no reported cases.

The county reports 54% of the total population is fully vaccinated, with an 82% fully vaccinated rate for those 65 and older. The vaccine is available for those as young as 12.

Only the weather failed to cooperate, as the county welcomed summer’s unofficial start. The turn to warm weather will help the vaccine drive down the virus’s transmission, so why are some national health officials expressing concern?

The fly in the ointment is the rapidly slowing vaccination pace among adults. There has been a sustained collapse of vaccination numbers since mid-April.

In the county, the number of adults fully vaccinated each week for the last two months shows a marked decline. There are still plenty of unvaccinated adults out there.

A calculation of the fully vaccinated numbers and the census data on population by age says that roughly 62% of the county’s adults are fully vaccinated. That’s a great number, but it also means that 38% are not yet there, and the rate for getting the shot is dropping fast.

The positive news is that the population most vulnerable to severe illness, those over 65, has disproportionately strong vaccination rates.

Fear, distrust, downright opposition to vaccines, red and blue politics, and the perception that the threat has diminished play a role in the slowdown in vaccinations.

Polls by Monmouth University and Stockton’s William J. Hughes Center point to a correlation between an acceptance of the need for vaccinations and political affiliation. There is a growing consensus among many public health experts that herd immunity may no longer be attainable.

Instead, many say vaccinating the most vulnerable may be the best that can be hoped for. The level of vaccination achieved, with incremental increases over time, will hopefully keep the virus threat manageable.

The argument is that the virus will still circulate. Some people, in smaller numbers, will fall victim and regular updates of the vaccine will become as common as the flu shot, which also does not have universal acceptance in the minds of many.

The counterargument is that the push to overcome those hesitant, if not those fully opposed, is essential. Persistent hesitancy allows for the greater circulation of the virus and its production of variants.

A high level of vaccination in the population is still seen as key to preventing the development of highly contagious variants that may demonstrate an ability to break through vaccine protections.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) this month produced a 30-slide PowerPoint presentation (https://bit.ly/3fVdNVA), updating the emerging SAR-CoV-2 variants and vaccine considerations related to those variants.

The presentation showed 24 variants of interest that may have higher transmissibility or may reduce the effectiveness of treatments.

More serious were the 15 variants of concern (VOC), with “evidence of increased transmissibility, more severe disease, significant reduction in neutralization by antibodies, reduced effectiveness of treatments or vaccines, or diagnostic detection failures.”

The virus that causes Covid does not mutate as fast as the common flu virus, but experts warn that if higher levels of fully vaccinated individuals are not achieved, the virus will continue to acquire mutations.

One conclusion in the CDC analyses was that “breakthrough infection is more frequent with VOC.” Another was that the currently authorized vaccines offer protection against the existing variants. The recommendation was straightforward – more effort is needed to increase the “uptake” with available vaccines.

This is the last of the Herald’s weekly summaries of Covid news. As the case counts have slowed and restrictions have been modified or withdrawn, the need for a weekly article appears less necessary. The county has moved its release of numbers to a weekly summary, which appears on the Herald's website as soon as it is available.

The Herald will continue to follow the health emergency in all its aspects through county news stories when and where necessary.

To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com.