The Senate Health Care & Wellness committee held a work session on the COVID-19 pandemic this morning, including a presentation from WSU professor Guy Palmer for his insight on where we’ve gone through the pandemic as a state and where we might be heading.
Palmer, Regents Professor of Pathology and Infectious Disease at WSU in the Paul G. Allen School of Global Health, began his remarks by detailing the state’s “just-in-time” health care system that was in place before the pandemic. Public health systems throughout the state began the pandemic lacking the necessary resources to navigate the situation as it transpired. Many county health departments in the state had insufficient epidemiology and logistic resources needed to address the challenges presented by the virus, “They didn’t really have surge capacity,” said Palmer in his remarks to the committee, “It’s noted as a point of reference that Seattle and King County Public Health are basically the same size as all of the other county health offices put together.” The lack of resources resulted in counties being unaware of what transmission looked like in their communities early in the pandemic, compared to the rest of the state and country.
With the state currently facing a large increase of COVID-19 cases driven by the omicron variant, Palmer, who is also providing scientific counsel to WSU’s COVID-19 response, shared his thoughts to where the pandemic may go from here. He noted that the omicron variant appears to be following the pattern that many viruses tend to, with a decrease virulence, or severity, but increased transmissibility. “Traditionally, many viruses maintain a high level of transmissibility but decrease their ability to cause disease. Will COVID follow this pattern? Obviously there is a lot of hope that this will, because that would be one of the major steps towards decreased impact on society.”
For the virus to spread it must enter the cell, antibodies created by vaccines or by previous infection can prevent that virus from binding and entering the cell. The question remains, shared Palmer, “How much can that virus change, while allowing it still to get into a cell and escape immunity?”
The scientific community continues to assess the impact of multiple infections on immunity. With other coronaviruses and the flu, multiple infections and vaccination have shown to provide that immunity to the virus over time. “In a common cold and flu season, your children are more likely to infect you, because they don’t have much built up immunity – over time they build that immunity,” Palmer told the committee.
The question to ask then, according to Palmer, is if we will we see this with COVID-19. “We’re hopeful that it’s true, because these things would lead us to the end game where we have an endemic infection with minimal impact on healthcare services and severe health consequences.”
Following Palmer’s remarks, Senator Ann Rivers of La Center asked if it would be better to call the COVID-19 vaccine a ‘shot,’ rather than a ‘vaccination,’ because of the incorrect assumption people may make that vaccination provides complete immunity. Palmer responded that “very few vaccines against any disease – any viral pathogen – do that. Even our most effective vaccines such as measles do not prevent infections, what they do is they prevent severe disease – which is really what vaccines are intended to do.”
Dr. Palmer’s full presentation to the committee can be viewed below.