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Dr. Halverson recommends COVID-19 vaccines to save lives

Halverson shot

Photo by Haady Lashkari

Registered Nurse Rita Valenzuela administers Dr. Jim Halverson a shot of the COVID-19 vaccine at Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura on Dec. 20.

 

Grant Phillips, Ojai Valley News reporter

Dr. Jim Halverson of Ojai chronicled the progress of the pandemic since early last year in a weekly column in the Ojai Valley News, explaining all aspects of it and encouraging Ojai Valley residents to “stay properly informed, follow the guidelines, stay hopeful, stay safe and stay well.”

He concluded his weekly column June 4 and followed up with another Aug. 13 about the COVID-19 delta variant.

Last week, as COVID-19 cases have increased in Ventura County, Dr. Halverson discussed with the Ojai Valley News the latest information about COVID-19 and how Ojai Valley residents are faring through the pandemic.

A total of 124 Ventura County residents were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Sept. 1, up from 70 at the beginning of August. Due to rising case rates in California, the state Public Health officer ordered a mask mandate Aug. 21.

The Centers for Disease Control’s classification of “High,” “Substantial,” “Moderate” and “Low” levels of community transmission are determined by weekly case numbers. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky stated that masks should be worn in public, indoor settings by everyone, including fully vaccinated people, in areas with Substantial or High transmission rates.

The “High” classification is defined by either a 10% positivity rate in testing, or more than 100 new weekly cases per 100,000 residents. The Ventura County government website that provides daily updates on county COVID-19 figures — www.venturacountyrecovers.org — reported a weekly average of 158.9 per 100,000 residents as of Sept. 1, nearly doubling the qualifying number for the High classification.

“We are a high-case-rate county,” said Dr. Halverson, regarding the new mask mandate. “We certainly qualify.”

For Ojai’s 93023 ZIP code, there were nearly 56 per 100,000 weekly cases as of Sept. 1, placing the city of Ojai within the “Substantial” category.

The mask mandate will remain in effect until at least Sept. 19.

“I think if we have rates similar to this, it’s going to continue,” said Dr. Halverson of the mask mandate. “It should.”

More than 46 million COVID-19 shots have been administered in California, placing the state near the top of adult vaccination rates across the country. More than 80% of those eligible have received at least one dose.

A total of 79.10% of Ojai’s 12 and up population have received their first dose. Of those 65 and up, 91.19% have received their first dose.

The Food and Drug Administration also announced its full approval of the two-dose Pfizer vaccine for those ages 16 and up.

Approval of Pfizer’s vaccine shouldn’t create hesitancy among the other options, Dr. Halverson said. The Pfizer BioNTech vaccine was rolled out in early December of 2020, while Moderna was rolled out at the end of the month. Johnson and Johnson’s Janssen vaccine was nor rolled out until March 2021, meaning the FDA is following the submitted order of approval.

“It’s not because they’re riskier or not performing as well,” said Dr. Halverson. “But by the end of the year, I think you’ll see all three will have been requested and will probably be fully authorized by then.”

The FDA’s full approval came shortly after news of booster shots, announced by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. To clarify, the booster shots are not yet FDA-approved, only the two-dose Pfizer vaccine.

“The FDA approval is for the Pfizer vaccine,” said Dr. Halverson. “The eight-month booster for Pfizer and Moderna is in the hands of the FDA to see if they agree there is data enough to justify that recommendation,” he said.

There is a distinction between immunocompromised individuals receiving a third “primary” shot and those without underlying conditions receiving a booster. The CDC has composed a list of those who qualify for a third shot, which is recommended in special cases at least 28 days after the second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines. Those who qualify for a third shot under CDC guidance include anyone receiving active cancer treatments for tumors or cancers of the blood; anyone who received an organ transplant and is taking medicine to suppress the immune system; and other specific conditions listed on the CDC website at https://bit.ly/3yEKZrM.

“For really immunosuppressed people who qualify, they have a three-shot primary series,” said Dr. Halverson. “For the rest of us, which is the vast majority of us, we have a two-shot primary series. And now, the question is, should we get a booster at eight months later? And I think they are going to approve that.”

The booster shots will be available via Emergency Use Authorization for people eight months after they received their initial dose, starting Sept. 20.

Questions about alternatives to the vaccine have been gaining traction online, including monoclonal antibody treatments such as Regeneron, along with steroids and other medications, such as Ivermectin, Remdesivere and Hydroxychloroquine. When asked about alternatives, Dr. Halverson said vaccines are the most reliable option. “If you are diagnosed with COVID, and you’re concerned you’re high risk, you can speak to your doctor on whether you would benefit from monoclonal antibodies.”

“By far the strongest, most proven way to stop this pandemic are the three vaccines,” said Dr. Halverson. “So many people are so resistant to getting the one treatment that has by far the highest benefit of preventing hospitalizations and deaths, far better than the monoclonal antibodies.”

Regarding some people hesitating to get the vaccine, Dr. Halverson said: “I think, ultimately, what’s going to tip the most, is going to be if one of their friends or relatives dies from this, and that friend or relative reaches out to them and says, ‘I should have gotten the vaccine.’”

Some breakthrough infections have occurred among the vaccinated — 39 in the 93023 ZIP code, with six occurring in the past 14 days. A total of 2,185 fully vaccinated Ventura County residents have tested positive for COVID-19. A total of 17 fully vaccinated Ventura County residents are reported to have died with COVID-19 as of Sept. 1, out of a reported 1,081 total deaths of people in Ventura County with COVID-19.

Schools have also adjusted to the rising case numbers, requiring vaccinations or weekly testing for teachers beginning Oct. 15.

“The overall numbers of kids who get seriously ill are still quite low,” said Dr. Halverson. “It’s not like the delta has been dramatically worse for the younger kids. It’s that the delta has infected a lot more younger kids because it’s more contagious. That’s why we’re seeing more kids getting hospitalized.”

The next group likely to be approved for the vaccine will be children ages 5 to 11, he said.

“The FDA has asked Pfizer and Moderna to provide six months of data for that age group,” said Dr. Halverson. “I don’t anticipate seeing the FDA look at it for approval until the end of the year at the earliest.”

While numbers are still rising, it’s worth noting the overall improvements from the peak experienced in January.

During the January surge, 449 people with COVID-19 were hospitalized in Ventura County on an average day. Now, that number has fallen to 124 as of Sept. 1 with 24 patients in intensive care units.

Herd immunity is often discussed, with the New York Times reporting that nearly 90% of the total population would need to be fully vaccinated to reach a possibly elusive threshold for protection against the virus.

With a steady rise in vaccination numbers, Dr. Anthony Fauci is projecting a possible heard immunity to be achieved by 2022. Dr. Halverson appears equally hopeful.

“I think the more people who get vaccinated, the more likely it is,” said Dr. Halverson. “The No. 1 driver of that equation is how many people will still get vaccinated.”

Vaccines are available at the Ojai Village Pharmacy (202 E. Ojai Ave.), the Medical Arts Pharmacy (1320 Maricopa Hwy.) and Rite Aid (11496 N. Ventura Ave.) for free. No identification such as a proof of residency, proof of insurance, or ID is required. Go to www.venturacountyrecovers.org for more information about area vaccination and testing sites.

“I think this is the ultimate example of helping your neighbor — by wearing a mask where it’s required, and getting vaccinated,” said Dr. Halverson. “You’re not doing it just for yourself, but for others, the people you might expose — your family, your loved ones, your co-workers, and your friends and neighbors.”

For Ojai and its 93023 ZIP code, more than 71% of the community 12 and up have already made the choice to become fully vaccinated. That is a rate above the county as a whole, which is at 68.6%.

 

Editor's note: An editing error has been corrected to report that 17 fully vaccinated Ventura County residents have died with COVID-19 as of Sept. 1.

 

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