CHAPEL HILL — Vaccines against COVID-19 will largely prevent outbreaks of the disease in North Carolina by this summer, according to a number of UNC doctors.
But they also are preaching patience.
We’re not quite there yet.
Dr. David Weber predicted that 85% of the state’s population will be protected from infection by summer, either because of vaccination or because they have contracted the virus and developed antibodies.
“With the current ability to give everybody vaccines by May, and given the number of people who’ve already been infected, it’s likely we’ll begin to reach community protection levels at the end of May or in June,” Weber, an infectious disease specialist, said at a video press conference. “This is not a Get Out of Jail Free card. If you are susceptible and you’re at risk and you come into direct contact with someone with COVID, you’ll still be able to get COVID.
“But it will dramatically drive down the rates of new disease.”
Weber said the development of new treatments for the coronavirus and vaccines to target new variants “give us hope that by the end of the year life will return mostly to normal.”
But Weber and other UNC doctors say it’s too soon to abandon the masks, physical distancing and other measures designed to prevent spread of the airborne virus.
“I think we should be cautiously optimistic,” said Dr. Alexa Mieses Malchuk, a family physician and professor in the UNC medical school. “Having three vaccines approved that are effective at preventing COVID symptoms, this is very exciting. But at the same time this is not the time to celebrate too much and start relaxing all of the measures that have gotten us this far.”
President Joe Biden said this week that the U.S. should have enough vaccine on hand to inoculate every adult in the country by the end of May. As of Wednesday, nearly 1.5 million people in North Carolina — about 15% of the population — had received at least a first dose of vaccine, according to state health officials.
Meanwhile, the numbers of new cases and people needing hospitalization for COVID-19 have dropped significantly in recent weeks. North Carolina has reported an average of 2,275 new cases a day over the past week — down from the post-holiday peak of more than 10,000 a day in early January.
Dr. David Wohl, another infectious disease specialist at UNC, says the recent decline may have more to do with the spike in cases caused by holiday travel and gatherings.
“We’ve got this artificial mountain of cases, hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths that we’re now seeing the other side of, and I’m hopeful that that will continue,” Wohl said. “But I am worried that we’re seeing a steep decline because we saw a steep increase.”
UNC Health organized the virtual press conference to mark the one-year anniversary of the state’s first confirmed coronavirus case. Since then, UNC Medical Center in Chapel Hill has treated more than 1,700 coronavirus patients.
“As I think about what things were like a year ago, we weren’t sure what was going to happen,” said Dr. Wesley Burks, dean of the UNC School of Medicine. “We certainly didn’t think we’d be here today still talking about it.”