LNP Sunday op-ed by Joseph M. Kontra, MD, chief of infectious diseases at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Hospital.

Sixteen months after the team at Lancaster General Hospital treated our first patient with COVID-19, we have officially reached what is considered a low level of new cases. The COVID-19 census at LGH is in the single digits. The state mask mandate has been lifted, and sporting events and social gatherings have returned.

While this is certainly great news, as an infectious diseases specialist, I cannot help but see storm clouds on the horizon. The new, highly contagious delta variant has arrived on the scene. COVID-19 cases are up by 111% nationally in just the past two weeks, and 44 states are now reporting sharp increases in COVID-related hospitalizations.

Thankfully, this latest COVID-19 wave has not yet reached Lancaster County, although we do know through laboratory testing that the delta variant is present here. Across the country, there is a clear correlation between low vaccination rates and a surge in delta variant infections, hospitalizations and deaths. That is not a coincidence. As Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, put it Friday: “This is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

Joseph M. Kontra,  MD,  AAHIVS

The Best Reason to Get Vaccinated

If you are still looking for the best reason to get vaccinated, consider this: Getting vaccinated all but eliminates the possibility that you will die of COVID-19. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 99.5% of all deaths from COVID-19 in the past few months have occurred in people who were not vaccinated. Those tragic deaths were potentially preventable. Getting the COVID-19 vaccine can save your life.

Despite that sobering statistic, a significant number of people remain hesitant to get the vaccine. As someone who has witnessed far too much suffering and death from this virus, it is particularly disheartening to see social media posts and even some news outlets promoting vaccine hesitancy and spreading misinformation. This is dangerous and irresponsible, and is without a doubt contributing to the death toll.

A Look at the Data

While we should be proud of the great strides we have made together here in Lancaster County, our vaccination rate still leaves room for improvement. As of Thursday, 54% of the county’s eligible population had received at least one dose of the vaccine, which is significantly lower than the statewide average of 63%. The emergence of the delta variant should provide additional encouragement to those who remain reluctant to get vaccinated.

Despite widespread misinformation, the currently available COVID-19 vaccines are among the safest and most effective vaccines ever created. More than 3.5 billion vaccine doses have been delivered worldwide, including more than 335 million in the United States alone. We have more safety information on the COVID-19 vaccines than any other vaccine in history.

While a sore arm and a day or so of flu-like symptoms can be expected, actual serious adverse effects from the vaccines are astonishingly rare. Getting the vaccine now does not make you an experimental subject, but the beneficiary of a potentially lifesaving shot in the arm.

This newest variant is four times more contagious than the original COVID-19 virus that ravaged China. It tends to strike younger people and cause more severe illness, with double the risk of hospitalization.

In addition, the delta variant is resistant to monoclonal antibody infusion, a treatment that has proven successful against prior strains of the virus.

We Still Have Time to Act

Viruses mutate continuously, which is how new variants arise. Each successive variant will be better-equipped to spread and cause disease. The longer we take to reach a high level of vaccination in our population, the more contagious and dangerous each new successive variant will become.

Fortunately, now 16 months into our epidemic, Lancaster County has not yet seen a significant number of COVID-19 cases attributed to the new delta variant. We still have time to act, and fortunately the vaccines available to us still provide substantial protection against this latest threat.

We have the power to end this pandemic, and at the same time minimize the burden of disease and death due to COVID-19. Get the vaccine to protect not only yourself but your family, your loved ones, co-workers, neighbors and many others.

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