“This week in coronavirus” is a weekly column that summarizes Tennessee headlines about the pandemic and COVID-19 vaccines. If you can’t follow the rapid-fire virus news every day, this column will catch you up.
Although Tennessee health officials recently voiced concerns about the threat of another coronavirus surge, the outbreak in the Volunteer State is still slowly shrinking.
Meanwhile, vaccinations — and the evidence they are effective — continue to grow.
As of Thursday, Tennessee was reporting 1,086 new COVID-19 infections per day — down 7% from the prior week — and 17 deaths per day. The state’s weekly positivity rate has held steady at about 6.7%.
More than 1 million Tennesseans are now fully vaccinated, and vaccine appointments should be open to anyone age 16 or older across the entire state as of Monday, April 5.
If you are still on the fence about whether or not to be vaccinated, the past week has provided more compelling evidence on the effectiveness of the vaccines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last week vaccines developed by Moderna and Pfizer have proven highly effective in real world use, not just clinical trials.
Based on a study of nearly 4,000 people who were vaccinated in real world conditions in six states, the vaccines reduced the risk of infection by 80% by two weeks after an initial dose. This protection rose to 90% by two weeks after a second dose, the CDC reported.
This new research is the strongest evidence yet that vaccines are working, not just in labs and not just for the person who gets the injection — but for everybody. If vaccines are this effective at preventing infection, then they also make it very unlikely a vaccinated person can transmit the virus to anyone else.
The CDC said previously vaccinated people can safely gather in small, unmasked groups, and added Friday vaccinated people can travel with little risk to themselves if they wear a mask, avoid crowds and continue to wash their hands frequently.
More good news came when Pfizer announced ongoing clinical trials show its vaccine remains effective for at least six months. This was an expected but not guaranteed finding. Because the vaccines are so new, there is no way to know long they last until enough time ticks by to be sure.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, said the clinical trial results suggest the protection will last at least six months and will likely last much longer.
“They know, at six months, it’s clearly there,” Fauci told CNN. “It more than likely will be even longer. Time will tell.”
Unfortunately, not all the vaccine-related headlines were so positive. The New York Times reported last week that mistakes at a manufacturing plant in Baltimore contaminated up to 15 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, causing the launch of the plant’s production line to be delayed.
None of the contaminated doses left the factory, and all the Johnson & Johnson doses in current circulation came from another facility, so the error did not impact doses already been administered or are currently being delivered or distributed, the Times reported.
But the screw-up casts doubt on about 24 million doses expected from the Baltimore factory in April. Johnson & Johnson insisted these doses remain on track.
While details are unclear, problems with the factory may cause states and local governments to get fewer doses in April, which could hamper distribution efforts. City officials in Nashville said last week they expect an impact but don't know how disruptive it will be.
Dr. Alex Jahangir, leader of the city’s coronavirus task force, felt there was a clear lesson to be learned from the problems at the Baltimore facility.
"When there is vaccine available now, everyone should get it," Jahangir said. "Because you never know what is going to happen."
Brett Kelman is the health care reporter for The Tennessean. He can be reached at 615-259-8287 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @brettkelman.