July 23, 2021 by John Fernandez
COVID-19 Roundup: The Unvaccinated Fuel Hospitalizations; Genetic Link to Severe Illness; and Children’s Infection Rate
‘This Virus Will Evolve’: Concerns Grow Over Variants, New Surge Among the Unvaccinated
Just as public health officials feared, the combination of too many unvaccinated people and the more contagious delta strain of the coronavirus has led to new COVID-19 surges across the nation.
The vast majority of patients being hospitalized now for COVID-19 are unvaccinated, explains Sergio Segarra, M.D., the chief medical officer with Baptist Hospital, part of Baptist Health South Florida. And many of them are young adults in their 20s and 30s who are getting extremely sick.
“From the very beginning, that was a concern of mine — that we do not get a substantial portion of the population vaccinated,” said Dr. Segarra, who was interviewed by CNN this week on the latest surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations in Florida and nationwide.
The latest update from the Florida Health Department shows that 58 percent of the state’s population over the age of 12 has been vaccinated. Among the most populated South Florida counties, Miami-Dade registered a 73 percent vaccination rate; Broward 66 percent, and Palm Beach 62 percent, according to the latest data.
But there is a persistent group of people who, for whatever reason, are not getting vaccinated. The more people that get infected, the greater the likelihood that the virus evolves into more variants, said Dr. Segarra.
On Thursday, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, M.D, released the first surgeon general’s advisory of his time with the Biden administration, describing the “urgent threat” posed by the rise of false information about COVID-19 and vaccines. “Misinformation has caused confusion and led people to decline COVID-19 vaccines, reject public health measures such as masking and physical distancing, and use unproven treatments,” states the advisory.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this week that the delta variant is responsible for 58 percent of newly confirmed cases nationwide from June 20 through July 3. The COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in the U.S. effectively protects people from severe illness if they are infected with the delta strain of the virus, the CDC says.
“With more people getting the virus, whether they get minor symptoms or get significantly ill and end up in the hospital, there’s a greater chance that a variant is going to occur,” explains Dr. Segarra. “The virus will evolve.”
The worse-case scenario, which fortunately has not occurred, says Dr. Segarra, is the emergence of a variant that is resistant to the currently available vaccines.
“That hasn’t happened yet, but that’s something that does keep me up,” says Dr. Segarra. “That’s something that makes me worry. And I would hate to think that 10 years from now they’re going to say, ‘Wow, those people back in 2021 could have gotten the vaccine, but they didn’t. And now there’s some terrible variant out there that is creating all kinds of havoc.’ So, that does worry me.”
Study: Human Genetics Affect COVID Susceptibility and Severity
For more than a year since the beginning of the pandemic, researchers and clinicians have been trying to understand why some people develop severe COVID-19 illness, while others show few if any symptoms. Risk factors have included age and underlying medical conditions.
However, variations in the human genome have not been thoroughly investigated as a possible risk factor that determines a mild or severe response to a COVID-19 infection. That is, until now.
A new study published in Nature, led by the COVID-19 Host Genomics Initiative (HGI), confirms or newly identifies 13 genes that appear to play a role in susceptibility to the coronavirus, or that have an affect on the severity of illness. The researchers established international collaboration when the pandemic started to focus on genetics. This collaboration included about 3,000 researchers and clinicians and data from 46 studies involving more than 49,000 individuals with COVID-19.
HGI teams involved in the analysis include both academic laboratories and private firms from two dozen countries, including the U.S. Several of the 13 significant genes identified by researchers had previously been linked to other illnesses, including autoimmune diseases.
One example is the gene TYK2. Variants of this gene can increase susceptibility to infections by other viruses, bacteria and fungi, the study’s authors write. Individuals who carry certain mutations in TYK2 are at increased risk of being hospitalized or developing critical illness from COVID-19. Another example is the gene DPP9. The authors found a variant in this gene that increases the risk of becoming critically ill with COVID-19. It is the same variant that can increase the risk of a rare pulmonary disease characterized by scarring of the lung tissue.
“This study is important not only for advancing our understanding of human susceptibility to COVID-19; it also underlines the value of global collaborations for clarifying the human genetic basis of variability in susceptibility to infectious diseases,” states a supplemental article to the study published in Nature.
Pediatricians: Children Make Up Increasing Share of COVID-19 Infections
Children represent a growing share of COVID-19 infections in the United States, while severe illness from the coronavirus remains rare among young kids and adolescents. Researchers caution, however, that studies are needed to determine long-term health effects of COVID-19 on children.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), children accounted for about 2 percent of infections at the onset of the pandemic last year. By the end of May of this year, kids accounted for 24 percent of new weekly infections, the AAP said. The cummulative percentage of COVID-19 cases involving children is about 14 percent, the organization states.
More than 4 million children have tested positive for COVID-19 in the U.S., 18,500 were hospitalized and 336 have died from the disease, according to the latest update from the AAP.
“At this time, it still appears that severe illness due to COVID-19 is rare among children,” the AAP states. “However, there is an urgent need to collect more data on longer-term impacts of the pandemic on children, including ways the virus may harm the long-term physical health of infected children, as well as its emotional and mental health effects.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends everyone 12 years and older should get a COVID-19 vaccination to help protect against COVID-19. At this time, children 12 years and older are able to get the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. In May, the CDC and U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the use of the Pfizer vaccine for adolescents after a clinical trial involving 2,260 12-to-15-year-olds found that the Pfizer-BioNTEch vaccine’s efficacy was 100 percent. “This official CDC action opens vaccination to approximately 17 million adolescents in the United States and strengthens our nation’s efforts to protect even more people from the effects of COVID-19,” stated CDC Director Rochelle Walensky in a statement.