LONGVIEW – The number of COVID-19 vaccinations given in the state and Cowlitz County appears to be rising very slightly over the last couple weeks, after dropping in the spring and remaining flat since July, according to state Department of Health data.
As of Friday, 51.7% of Cowlitz County residents had initiated vaccination, and 46.5% were fully vaccinated. Statewide, 60.9% of residents had initiated vaccination, and 55.2% were fully vaccinated.
Many unvaccinated people have misconceptions about the vaccines’ safety, said Dr. Steve Krager, county deputy health officer.
During the Cowlitz County commissioner meeting Tuesday, many people speaking in favor of a resolution stating the board won’t require COVID-19 vaccines for some employees commented that data from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) showed an increase in injuries, medical problems and deaths caused by the COVID vaccines.
Krager said the vaccines are safe and effective, and many people are misinterpreting the VAERS data.
The national system is run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to detect possible safety problems in vaccines. VAERS is not designed to detect if a vaccine caused a specific event, but it can help identify unusual or unexpected patterns requiring a closer look, according to its website.
Anyone can report a health problem that happens after vaccination to the site.
Healthcare providers are required to report serious events, regardless of causality, including: death, a life-threatening event, hospitalization, persistent or significant incapacity, congenital anomaly or birth defect, or serious medical event.
Just because a problem is reported does not mean that the vaccine caused or contributed to it, Krager said.
According to a July county health department report, VAERS data must be interpreted with limitations in mind, including that reports may contain biased, incomplete, inaccurate, unverifiable information; individual adverse events may be reported repeatedly; an event occurring after vaccination is not necessarily caused by the vaccine.
“VAERS data is absolutely being misinterpreted and misused. It’s frustrating to see,” Krager said. “People taking every report and assuming causality with the vaccine is not how VAERS is meant to be used.”
A “perfect example” of how VAERS is supposed to be used is when it caught the link between an increased risk of rare blood clots with low platelets and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Krager said. Vaccine use was paused when the problem was investigated, and officials determined the vaccine is still worth getting because risk of death from COVID is so much higher, he said.
Krager said health officials are not seeing increases in deaths linked to the COVID-19 vaccines.
Delta variant and vaccination
Another misunderstanding of COVID-19 data is that the vaccine caused the delta variant and that vaccinated people are primarily spreading it, Krager said.
The delta variant, known as B.1.617.2, was first identified in India in October 2020 before vaccines were available, according to the CDC. The more contagious strain began spreading in the United States this spring and is now the most predominant variant in the country.
The COVID-19 vaccines don’t “shed” the virus, according to the CDC. Preliminary evidence suggests that fully vaccinated people who are infected can spread it to others. Vaccination helps prevent severe illness and death.
There’s a clear correlation between lower vaccination rates and higher case rates, Krager said.
As of Wednesday, San Juan County had the lowest two-week case rate in the state, at about 150 new cases per 100,000 people. The county had the highest vaccination rate in Washington as of Monday, with 77.2% of residents initiating vaccination and 71.4% fully vaccinated.
The same trend is seen nationwide, Krager said, with less-vaccinated states seeing higher case numbers.
“Most cases are being driven by unvaccinated people,” he said. “It’s not that vaccinated people are not getting sick, but they’re not a primary driver. That’s even more true with hospitalizations and deaths.”
About 80-85% of cases are in unvaccinated people, Krager said. The vaccines provide more protection against severe illness, hospitalization and death, he said.