The race is on between COVID-19 variants and vaccines as Utah plateaus

Pharmacy Technician Katrina Bonwick administers a dose of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at the Wheatfield surgery in Luton, England, Thursday, March 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)


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SALT LAKE CITY — As the COVID-19 pandemic continues into the summer, many are left wondering what the future holds. When will life get back to normal?

The answer largely depends on the variants of the virus, how quickly the population can get immunized and how soon health precautions are lifted, according to Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious disease physician for Intermountain Healthcare.

"It really, truly is a race right now of the variants versus the vaccine," he said in a recent Q&A.

As of Thursday, 30% of adults in America were fully vaccinated and 43% had gotten at least one dose. In Utah, 40.2% of the population has received at least one dose while 28.8% are fully vaccinated. Stenehjem said Utah is doing well in the race but things could change if health precautions, like wearing masks and social distancing, are phased out of daily life too soon.

What makes the variants concerning is the fact that they transmit more easily, meaning it takes a lower dose to give an exposed person the symptomatic disease, Stenehjem explained.

"What makes it tricky is that as we take masks off, as we start gathering indoors … that those viruses are much more transmissible and can cause much more disease in an environment that doesn't have good … ventilation," he explained. "More people get sick."

The main variant seen in Utah is the B. 1.1.7, or U.K. variant, of which 652 cases have been identified to date in the state.

"The variants that we've been tracking, the California and the U.K. (strains) are the predominant viruses here in Utah," Stenehjem said. This trend mirrors data seen across the nation, he added.

Research shows that the approved vaccines available in the United States will offer some protection against some of the COVID-19 variants, which is why it remains important to get the majority of the population vaccinated, Stenehjem said.

With the vaccine, it's still possible that booster shots might be needed to get the pandemic under control. Boosters are usually administered for one of two reasons: the vaccine effectiveness has waned over time or the initial vaccine didn't offer protection against a new circulating strain of a virus. For example, yearly influenza booster shots are customary.

"Not necessarily because our immunity is waning, but because influenza mutates so quickly and so frequently that we have to match our immunity to the new strain," Stenehjem explained.

Currently, there isn't enough information available to know if booster shots will be needed for COVID-19 vaccines and how long a dose will provide immunity from the virus. So far, studies show the Pfizer vaccine's efficacy decreases from 95% to 91% six months after the shot, according to a report. No serious safety concerns were found in the six months post-vaccination and the efficacy still remained high.

The CEO and co-founder of BioNTech, a creator of the vaccine, said recently booster shots will be necessary to up immunity; however, Stenehjem said it's likely that if booster shots are needed, it would be to fight new variants.

"The reason that we would need a booster shot is to match the variant that's currently circulating," Stenehjem said. Both Pfizer and Moderna are in the process of manufacturing booster shots to be administered over the next year.

If life goes back to normal while the virus is still prevalent with a large proportion of the population unvaccinated, there will be more cases, more hospitalizations, and more suffering, Stenehjem said.

As for if booster shots will be needed to fight the virus going forward, time will tell, he said.

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Lauren Bennett is a reporter with who covers Utah’s religious community and the growing tech sector in the Beehive State.


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