Looming FDA approval of Pfizer vaccine gives hope to health officials

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
This illustration picture taken on Nov. 23, 2020 shows a bottle reading "Vaccine COVID-19" and a syringe next to the Pfizer and Biontech logo. Pfizer is now considering a third shot for the already vaccinated as a form of booster shot to shore up protection against the virus. (Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

As York County residents' interest in vaccines continues to rise, health officials are crossing their fingers that federal approval of the Pfizer vaccine will improve vaccination rates.

The Food and Drug Administration is expected to fully approve the Pfizer vaccine by early September, The New York Times reported. Previously, Pfizer had to rely on emergency authorization from the FDA, which spurred criticism among vaccine skeptics.

“What we’re seeing is an incremental increase, and with the cumulative effect from the discussion of the delta variant, we’ve seen a modest bump from that,” said Dr. Matt Howie, medical director of the York City Health Bureau. “And with approval, maybe we’ll see another bump.”

Experts have said that those who are fully vaccinated can still spread the disease but are at much lower risk of being hospitalized or dying from it.

More:Could schools become COVID-19 super-spreaders amid delta variant surge?

More:COVID-19 delta variant has more York County residents seeking vaccines

As of Monday, 1,047 York County residents per 100,000 people had received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine over the past 14 days, according to the state Health Department.

That's a 31% increase over the last 14-day period, when 798 patients per 100,000 people received their first dose. 

The recent increase in those receiving their first vaccine dose, which began in mid-July, comes after the numbers had plummeted since mid-April.

Howie last week attributed the incremental increase in vaccinations to the delta variant, which is the most contagious strain of the virus. 

In the region that includes Delaware, Washington, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, 72% of samples contained the variant, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But it's unclear how much of an impact FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine will have on those who oppose vaccines or remain hesitant — many of whom have doubted the vaccine's efficacy because it isn't fully approved by the agency.

Locally, multiple groups have spread doubt and misinformation about COVID-19 restrictions and vaccines.

For example, FreePA, a right-wing group with a York County chapter, directs supporters on its website to another pro-Donald Trump group known as America’s Frontline Doctors for any COVID-19 information.

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America's Frontline Doctors opposes vaccinating children and has falsely declared that masks don’t work. The group specifically cites the vaccine's emergency authorization.

The organization did not respond to inquiries for comment.

"While Pennsylvania has made tremendous progress in getting Pennsylvanians vaccinated, we have heard that (a lack of FDA approval) may be a reason for vaccine hesitancy for some," said state Health Department spokesperson Maggi Barton. "We cannot predict how that will impact hesitancy, but we will continue to encourage all eligible Pennsylvanians to get vaccinated."

The percentage of York County residents who are fully vaccinated already falls below the statewide numbers, according to CDC data.

As of Friday, about 48% of people in York County had been fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. About 53.5% had received at least one dose.

Statewide, 53% had been fully vaccinated and 66% had received at least one dose.

As of Monday, there were 48 additional COVID-19 cases reported in York County, bringing the total to 47,945, the state Health Department reported.

The county's case rate, which on Monday was 136 cases per 100,000 people over the past 14 days, was the highest since June 1, when the number was 141. Cases have been increasing since mid-July after plummeting since April.

That case rate led the CDC to classify York as one of 34 counties in the state with "substantial" transmission. Fourteen counties have "high transmission," the highest on the CDC's scale. Those include all of the counties that share a border with York.

There were no new deaths reported in York County on Monday, leaving the death toll at 840. 

Editor's note: The percentage of individuals who have been vaccinated at the state and county level differ between the state Health Department and the CDC. This is because while the state only counts residents who have been vaccinated in their home county or state, the CDC also includes residents who were vaccinated outside of their county or state of residence. 

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.