As California approaches full reopening, Dr. Michael Wilkes says coronavirus risks remain

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Alexis Reyna, 20 serves coffee to Ana Dominguez, 34, and Saray Aguilar, 33, at Chalio Mexican Restaurant, as the coronavirus (COVID-19) disease continues, in East Los Angeles, California, U.S., May 26, 2021. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters.

For the past 15 months, Dr. Michael Wilkes, professor of medicine and global health at UC Davis, has been KCRW’s guide through the COVID-19 maze, giving the facts and putting them into perspective. From mask-wearing to vaccines and variants, he’s been our go-to source for the most up-to-date information.

Now that the situation has vastly improved in California, we’re going to step back from our weekly check-ins. However, we will still be speaking to Dr. Wilkes on occasion as conditions warrant.

Today Dr. Wilkes talks about California’s June 15 reopening plans.

KCRW: Is the state moving too fast? Should we still have some safeguards in place?

Michael Wilkes: “Not surprisingly, I do think we're going a little fast. There's still about 35% of the adult population that is not vaccinated, and that, of course, includes all children under the age of 12. I personally think we need to be more cautious than the governor thinks. 

Large indoor gatherings still pose a significant risk for anyone who is not vaccinated. Each of those people are at risk for themselves, but they also carry the risk of infecting others in their homes and their workplaces. Immunized people are at less risk of transmitting the infection, but it is not zero. So for now, I think we should ease the restrictions a little bit more slowly, even though we have achieved this high level of vaccination in the state.  

You know, in the past, when we've seen the numbers going down, and we took a deep breath, and we were relieved and relaxed, the rates came back up again. And remember the U.K. has been incredibly successful in responding to COVID. And rates there are now increasing again, thanks to the variant first discovered in India.

… I'm going to continue to wear a mask when I'm in large public places indoors, and certainly for many months on planes and trains, in airports and grocery stores and movie theaters and places where people can get close to me.”

Are there certain situations where you're still saying, “Nope, it’s too early?” A baseball game or an indoor concert?

“I haven't gone to movie theaters. I don't think I'm ready for that. I did take a plane. And I was impressed with the safety that the airlines and the airports provided. But even then, you know, you're squished right next to the next person. And yeah, I was a little bit nervous.”

Do you feel that more needs to be done as far as getting vaccination doses out there?

“Absolutely. Remember that exactly six months ago, a 90-year-old British woman became the first person to receive the COVID vaccine. Now more than 2 billion doses later, researchers are collecting a lot of data. The bottom line is that COVID vaccines are amazing. I mean, they really have done a remarkable job. It does turn out that they're a little bit less effective than the 93% promised in the elderly, probably because they have a less robust immune response, but they are unequivocally life-saving. 

But there are new emerging variants all the time. And it's absolutely essential that as many people get immunized now as possible.”

What have we learned about vaccine safety?

“I think that we've learned a lot, but not everything. The vaccines do cause allergic problems in about five people in every million. That's very close to the same rates as every other immunization. In addition, there are these very rare blood clotting syndromes in those who got the more traditional vaccines, like the Johnson & Johnson. Now, of course, no vaccine, no medicine, no surgical procedure is 100% safe. But with the COVID vaccines, we need to compare the very rare side effects with the enormous public health benefits of lives saved. For right now these vaccines are far safer than getting the virus itself.”

Are we any closer to knowing how long protection from the vaccines lasts?

“We are. We've only had these vaccines for about six months, which isn't enough time to make any kind of a pronouncement on length of protection. But there are people that were in the initial clinical trials, they're soon going to reach their 12 month mark. So it looks like immunity from the vaccine and from previous infection lasts about a year. 

Researchers are reporting that it appears natural immunity from infection seems to last a bit longer than immunity from the vaccines. But again, the answers are still out in terms of how long it lasts.”

Are we going to be talking about getting booster shots this fall or this winter?

“I'd say there's a very high probability that we're going to be looking at boosters, but probably not this fall. The virus mutates quickly and sooner or later, we're going to see a mutation that escapes protection from the current immunizations. 

But this is a global pandemic, and the initial global vaccine rollout has been markedly uneven. Only 25% of the global population of 8 billion are immunized. [In] … emerging economies in Africa and Asia and Central America, there are rates of immunizations … that are well below 3%. So it's going to take months, if not years, to vaccinate the majority of the world's population. 

So boosters, yes, but right now, it's much more important that we get immunizations into as many people as we can first.”

The Olympics are set to begin in Japan in July. Could that end up being a trouble spot?

“I think there's potential for huge problems. Again, we see another example of where profit gets mixed up with public health. 

Only 3% of the Japanese population has been immunized. But now with the Olympics coming, people are going to come from all over the world. Many from the public health and the medical community think that this makes no sense. Just delay the games until a population can be protected. 

It seems like the decision is not a Japanese decision. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has said that the games will go on, ostensibly because they have lots of money to lose. And the interesting thing is the IOC isn't even requiring vaccination. So I don't get it. 

And the other thing is that the Olympics are followed by the Paralympics a month later. And when those people come, those folks are at higher risk of having COVID complications. If there's an outbreak after the Olympics, it's going to occur right when the Paralympics start.”




Chery Glaser


Darrell Satzman