Immunologist Dr. Paul Offit answers community questions on the coronavirus vaccines

Dr. Paul Offit
Dr. Paul Offit is the director of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Vaccine Education Center. (Screenshot by Jesse Berman)

Now is not the time to turn to Joseph Stalin for advice on how to view the ongoing threat of the coronavirus, said Dr. Paul Offit on April 22, during Beth El Congregation of Baltimore’s online discussion “Stopping the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

Offit is the director of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Vaccine Education Center and a former student of Beth El Hebrew School. At the virtual talk, he warned against what he viewed as a growing desensitization to the statistics on infection rates and death tolls.

“I know we’re really tired of this,” Offit said. “I just think we’re getting numb to the numbers. I mean, there’s that awful Stalin quote, right, which is ‘one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.’ I feel like that’s where we are here.”

The presentation focused on answering the community’s questions on the pandemic, the vaccines and what activities are becoming safe to do again. It began with Offit explaining that the public may not understand how widespread the pandemic is.

“When they say that 32 million people have been infected, those are just people who have been tested and found to be infected,” Offit said. He explained that, according to antibody surveillance studies, the real number is “probably closer to 100 million people in this country who’ve already been infected, which is roughly 30% of the country.”

Offit also had more encouraging news to report, including that as much as 25% of the U.S. population is now fully vaccinated and 40% partially vaccinated. Additionally, he estimated that as much as 45% of the country may now be immune to COVID-19, either as a result of vaccinations or natural immunity.

The goal, Offit said, is to reach 80% population immunity. If that benchmark is hit by late summer, Offit said, the following winter will see only a bump in cases, rather than a surge. He expects that much will depend on how many Americans intentionally choose not to get vaccinated.

Turning to the issue of vaccination mandates, Offit said that while he does not expect to see them in the public sector, they have already begun appearing in the private sector. Some 40 universities are telling students that those who are not vaccinated will have to do distance learning, Offit said.

Answering audience questions, Offit explained that it is possible for those who are vaccinated to transmit COVID-19, and that it is important to remain on guard against the variants that have originated in the United Kingdom, New York and elsewhere.

“When people say to me, ‘Why do you still wear a mask when you go to the deli down the street?’ it’s because of the variants,” Offit said. “It’s the variants that scare me.”

Offit said it is currently unknown how long the current vaccines will remain effective and whether booster shots will be necessary, though studies on those questions are ongoing. He predicted that the current vaccines could provide two to three years worth of protection. “I’ll probably be wrong,” he added, “‘cause you’re always wrong about this virus.”

When one viewer asked if those who are fully vaccinated should remain distant from their grandchildren, Offit’s reply was a simple one.

“No, I think you should kiss your grandchildren,” Offit said.

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