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How low vaccination rates are raising concerns with measles outbreaks and COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic may be largely in the rear view mirror for most of us, but it’s still causing thousands of hospitalizations and hundreds of deaths each month in the United States. Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests the latest vaccine is still pretty effective, but the percentage of those who are up to date of their COVID-19 boosters here and across the country remains really low. 

And now, county public health officials are warning residents that an international visitor to Arizona was diagnosed with measles and could have exposed people in public late last month. And Arizona’s high rate of unvaccinated children puts us at increased risk of an outbreak.

Dr. Nick Staab is assistant medical director for the Maricopa County Department of Public Health, and he joined The Show to tell us more.

LAUREN GILGER: Good morning, Dr. Staab.

DR. NICK STAAB: Good morning, Lauren.

GILGER: Let's begin with the vaccination rates here in our county. When we say there's a low child vaccination rate here. What does that mean? How low is it?

STAAB: So when we're looking at vaccination rates, what we're really trying to aim for is that rate that gives us community immunity or a herd immunity and, and really protects those who for a variety of reasons can't be vaccinated or their immune systems have not responded to vaccination. So we're looking to reach that level. Each disease that we can vaccinate against kind of has a different level that you need to reach. And so when we're looking at something like measles, it's a very infectious disease. So we need a, a high degree of community immunity and we've fallen well below that, especially amongst our school age children that we really need to protect against severe disease with measles.

GILGER: So what does that mean when it comes to this measles case that was in, I believe, parts of Chandler and a few public places late last month. What should people know?

STAAB: What we want people to know is that measles is spreading both nationally, globally and, and with this case here in our community. And so we really need to increase that vaccination rate so that we can stop that transmission when we have these single cases that pop up here and there. And so this is really an opportunity to remind folks the best way we can prevent transmission, prevent disease with measles is that vaccination and people should be up to date on their vaccination.

GILGER: What about COVID vaccination rates? Do we know how many people here are vaccinated against COVID? And how many are even up to date on those, those boosters?

STAAB: Yeah. Our, our data our data on COVID vaccine is not what it was during the pandemic. We don't have as strong data but we, what we do know is that the rates are very low. So even compared to flu vaccine, we know that the updated COVID vaccine, that one that came out for this respiratory season 2023-24, we're looking at 10% or lower of eligible individuals who have gotten that updated vaccine. So we have lots of room to improve there.

GILGER: That's interesting. So I wonder like it's so low, does it start to raise concerns about sort of the public trust in public health and institutions and authorities like you and, and like the CDC in general?

STAAB: There's, there's a lot of conversation in public health about that in our communications throughout the pandemic and then following. So we will continue to do what we do, which is try and get the best information out to people in a way that they can understand. And certainly in the area of immunizations and vaccines. That is that is our goal. So we work with a lot of community partners to make sure that they have the best information they can, they can to reach their members with the message that, that the best way to protect ourselves and protect our community is to be vaccinated.

GILGER: The CDC is now loosening some of its guidelines on COVID. Its new guidance it sounds like we take away the five day isolation period for people who test positive for COVID. Can you tell us what the guidance will look like instead? Like if you don't need to stay home for five days alone, what do you do instead if you test positive for COVID?

STAAB: So the report out this week is, is kind of a leak of a plan to change that guidance. So we have not received that guidance from CDC or from our State Health Department. It is an eventuality, we expected that we would lower that isolation period to, to look more like what we recommend for flu or RSV or other respiratory viruses, but we don't have that guidance just yet. So, from a public health perspective, we are still recommending COVID isolation as it's recommended by CDC. But eventually we expect that it will look more like that 24 hour fever free, improving symptoms and that kind of thing, but again, not quite there yet. 

GILGER: It's interesting is it just because there's so much immunity built up in the community, we don't need to be concerned in that way or is this something, you know, more people who are at risk should be concerned about?

STAAB: So the risk is still there. And certainly if you are at increased risk for severe disease from COVID, there are extra steps that you should take beyond what is kind of that basic recommendation. It's not really that anything has changed. It's kind of like what do, what we know people are doing. And so if, if the if the guidance is not really being followed, if it's not effective, then I think we, we try to in public health meet people where they are to, to have the greatest benefit. We know that there's a lot of difficulty in isolating for five days if you are a working parent or a single income household. So many things go into that to make it really difficult to follow that five day isolation. 

GILGER: Yeah. So practicality is a factor there. Last question for you, Dr. Staab about home tests. There are lots of questions out there about whether or not they still work or if they're maybe just taking longer to come up with a positive result. What's the status there?

STAAB: So, based on what we know about current circulating variants and what we're told by the manufacturers and the FDA about how these tests are working, we believe that the home tests are still effective and accurate. I think the bigger question is, you know, how are we distributing them? How are they accessible to everyone in the community and, and how are people using them if they have symptoms? And I think that those practices have all changed a lot in the last couple of months. So that we just have fewer people testing. And again, the reason why from a messaging standpoint kind of having isolation recommendations that are more, they're applied more evenly across these respiratory infections. The easier it will be for people to follow.

GILGER: Makes sense. All right, we'll leave it there for now. Dr. Nick Staab, assistant medical director for the Maricopa County Department of Public Health. Dr. Staab, thank you for coming back on. I appreciate it.

STAAB: Thank you.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.