With more than 90% of older teens and adults vaccinated in San Mateo County and younger teens trailing closely behind, health officials are pleased by the progress but the more contagious and potentially lethal delta variant has fueled concerns. 

“We don’t want to twist anybody’s arm but we really want people to make an informed choice about the vaccines,” Dr. Anand Chabra, section chief of mass vaccination, said. 

The delta variant was first spotted in India and made its way to California in March. Now the mutation accounts for a majority of COVID-19 cases nationally, a trend local officials believe is true for the region. Cases in San Mateo County have spiked in recent weeks, amounting to nearly nine new cases for every 100,000 residents on a rolling seven-day average with nearly 44,000 residents having been infected. 

Hospitalizations due to the virus have also increased from low single digits just weeks ago to 23 patients as of Monday, July 26. Of those in the hospital, four are in the ICU. 

Nationally, about 95% of those hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated but Chabra said it’s been hard for officials to collect local data that accurately represents the difference in risk the delta variant poses to vaccinated people versus the unvaccinated. 

Because so many county residents are vaccinated unlike other parts of the state and country, Chabra said it’s possible the count of hospitalized vaccinated residents could skew higher than unvaccinated.  

Based on the California Department of Public Health definition of symptomatic cases with a positive test among those at least 14 days past all recommended doses of an authorized vaccine, between Dec. 29 and July 14, San Mateo County has had 158 post-vaccination cases out of a total of 17,148 cases, according to County Health officials.

Determining who to consider as a breakthrough case has also been complicated, particularly in hospital settings, he said. As an example, he questioned whether hospitals should be including COVID-positive patients who are seeking care for non-COVID related illnesses in their hospitalization counts. He noted physicians are also attempting to determine whether the virus is responsible for someone’s ailments or another preexisting condition.

“We’re still working with hospitals to have clear vaccine status information on folks hospitalized with COVID,” Chabra said, noting data should be available soon.

Kaiser Permanente, one of the largest vaccinated entities in the county was unable to provide information on how many unvaccinated patients are currently seeking care for virus related illnesses and Sutter Health did not respond to requests for comment.

Hopes of reaching herd immunity as a safeguard against virus transmission have also been called into question by officials. Chabra noted multiple national health leaders have offered varying goals for herd immunity ranging from 80% to 95% of the total population. 

As of Sunday, July 25, more than 90% of county residents ages 16 and older have received at least a first vaccine dose. Adding children ages 12 to 15, the figure slightly dips to 88.9% for a total of 592,131 people vaccinated. Of those vaccinated, 89.1% have completed the vaccination series. 

But the county’s 90% only account for those who are eligible for vaccination and excludes children ages 11 and younger, Chabra noted. Accounting for the county’s total population, the rate is closer to 76%. Until a vaccine is approved for younger children sometime later this year or in early 2022, the county is unlikely to meet herd immunity, he said. 

Vaccine rates among some of the county’s most hesitant residents would also need to increase. With about 1,000 doses administered across the county a week, Chabra said most are occurring in Healthy Places Census Tracts, areas identified by the state to be the most socioeconomically disadvantaged. 

The progress has reduced the county’s vaccine gap among its most underserved populations from nearly 13% to 12% within a month, Chabra said, calling the efforts a “slow progress.” 

Referencing anecdotal information, he said some residents have been motivated to access vaccinations due to work requirements or to seeing loved ones become ill after contracting the virus, likely the delta variant. 

Chabra stressed the importance of getting vaccinated as soon as possible and doubled down on calls for all residents to wear face coverings indoors regardless of vaccination status out of an abundance of caution. 

“The news about the delta variant and the increase in cases right now … is discouraging news in the big picture,” Chabra said. “But that said, I’m really happy we have a good vaccination rate in the county and we’re making progress in communities most impacted.” 

Note to reader: This story has been updated to reflect the correct percentage of county residents who have received at least one vaccine dose. Roughly 76% of county residents have been vaccinated. 


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