Following President Joe Biden’s primetime address on Thursday, everyone in America could be forgiven for circling a new date on their calendar.
That’s the day the president said there is a good chance Americans could gather with their friends and family to celebrate not only Independence Day, but the country’s “independence from this virus.”
But getting to that point will take a significant increase in the supply of vaccines. And although public health experts are optimistic Kern County is trending in the right direction, the possibility remains that new coronavirus variants could challenge the health care system for years to come.
BLUEPRINT FOR THE FUTURE
While Kern County remains in the most restrictive tier of the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy, COVID-19 spread has steadily declined for the past few weeks. This decline has spurred state officials to allow the kinds of business and social activity that have been banned since the beginning of the pandemic.
For the first time in more than a year, California is reopening.
“There’s a lot of promising things that are happening, at the state level and at the community level, that are giving us hope of some sort of normalcy,” said Brynn Carrigan, director of the Kern County Public Health Services Department.
As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention releases new guidance saying fully vaccinated people can gather indoors without masks or social distancing, the signs that the pandemic is slowly fading are starting to arise.
“That brings so much hope to us a community for how we can get back to normal," Carrigan added, "the way that it was before the pandemic, not a new normal.”
Beginning April 1, the state will allow ballparks, arenas and theme parks to open, even for counties in the Blueprint’s most restrictive purple tier. As more and more vaccines are distributed, Gov. Gavin Newsom has promised to loosen restrictions even in the purple and red tiers, allowing the kinds of activity that have been sorely missed by those who have been forced to quarantine in their homes.
With spring on the horizon, Kern County has turned to its vaccination rollout plan.
“We’re all geared up and ready to go,” Carrigan said. “We all have the same mission. Once that supply ramps up, we’re unstoppable and that thrills me beyond belief.”
THE RACE TO HERD IMMUNITY
Two hurdles stand between Kern County’s ability to resume life as it was before the pandemic. One: The vaccine supply must increase. Two: The vaccine must find its way into the arms of residents.
As of Wednesday, state data showed Kern County had administered 167,298 doses. That’s decent progress, but it falls far short of the county’s estimated population of 900,202. Because the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two shots, the challenge becomes even greater.
Still, keeping things the way they are is not an option, which is why the county has a maximum vaccination capacity of 55,000 doses per week across all providers.
“Staying status quo and operating the way we’ve been operating the last 12 months, that’s not acceptable,” said county Chief Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop. “We’re not going to be keeping kids out of school, keeping businesses closed down or operating at a less than desirable capacity, that’s just not something that is sustainable at all. We’re going to have to get back to a time where we are educating our kids in a classroom, and our businesses are able to operate. And I think they are going to be able to do that in a safe and responsible way, but we’ve got to get back there.”
But it could take some time.
Local officials now look to the end of summer, or the end of the year, as the date when they will be able to reach everybody who wants a vaccine. Even if Kern County had an unlimited supply of vaccine, it would take 40 more weeks to reach the entire population.
That’s assuming everybody would need two doses. With the newest Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which only requires one dose, the timeline could change.
But even with a full vaccine rollout, COVID-19 could be around for a long time to come.
DANGEROUS POSSIBILITIES AHEAD
Even with a vaccine widely distributed, Kern Medical's Chief Medical Officer Dr. Glenn Goldis worries COVID-19 could be a part of the “new normal” for years to come. He says variants on the virus could lead to recurring spikes, and require booster shots on an annual basis, much like the influenza vaccine.
“The variants are already in other countries. They’re responsible for increasing cases in those countries,” he said. “I think it would be shortsighted of us to think that wouldn’t affect us here in the U.S.”
No variants have been detected in Kern County, according to KCPHS, but the CDC says variants first found in the United Kingdom, Brazil and South Africa spread more easily from person to person, potentially leading to more cases of COVID-19.
“Given that reality, I think it’s more important than ever to recognize that we’re going to have to have a way to address these variations at the spike protein on an ongoing basis,” Goldis said. “We’ll look to see whether or not they are able to develop a booster that’s effective against the variants of the day and then see what recommendations they make about duration and protection and frequency of booster.”
Variants could cause public health officials to push for continued mask and social distancing mandates, resulting in a new normal for the foreseeable future.
Distressingly, Goldis predicted vaccinating the 70 percent to 80 percent of the population needed to reach herd immunity was unlikely, which would make masking and social distancing all the more important.
“It’s not all lollipops and roses,” Goldis warned. “It’s a scenario where we do need to be vigilant and respond in turn.”