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Doctor: 70% vaccination, herd immunity possible by September

About 70% of Guam's population could become immune to COVID-19 around August or September if the ongoing vaccinations continue, making the widespread infection of the virus unlikely later this year, according to the chairman of the governor's Physicians' Advisory Group.

Dr. Hoa Nguyen, who is also a principal at American Medical Center, said Guam is likely to have "herd immunity" from COVID-19 in seven to eight months.

Herd immunity is achieved when most of a population is immune to an infectious disease, according to a report posted on Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's website. 

For example, if 80% of a population is immune to a virus, 4 out of every 5 people who encounter someone with the disease won’t get sick and won’t spread the disease any further, the report states.

Guam's COVID-19 situation has been "improving" and it is doing "better" than last year, Nguyen said. He noted the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are now available to fight the virus that causes COVID-19.

"It's going to take us about probably August, September before we get 70% of the population of Guam to be vaccinated and what we consider some type of herd immunity," Nguyen said at the Rotary Club of Tumon Bay's first meeting of the year.

The World Health Organization, in a Dec. 31, 2020, question-and-answer presentation, stated the proportion of the population that must be vaccinated against COVID-19 to begin inducing herd immunity is not known, adding: "This is an important area of research and will likely vary according to the community, the vaccine, the populations prioritized for vaccination, and other factors."

Guam has administered more than 10,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines for health care personnel and elderly 60 years and above.

Nguyen encouraged vaccination, which he said will protect one from the severe symptoms of the virus. One can still get the virus even if immunized, but hospitalization and death could be avoided.

Vaccinated firefighter gets COVID-19

Reports of a firefighter who recently tested positive for COVID-19 after getting his second dose of the vaccine serves as a cautionary tale, said Nguyen.

“The first vaccine will give you about 50% immunity, and the second shot will get you to about 95%,” he said. “Even after the second shot, it doesn’t mean you won’t catch the virus.”

He said people can still get infected by the novel coronavirus if they don’t wear a mask, wash their hands frequently, and avoid crowds and practice social distancing.

“People think that we have the vaccine, we’re done (with the pandemic). No, no we’re not done,” he said. “The only thing the vaccine does is it cuts down the hospitalization and death rate but it doesn’t mean you won’t catch the virus.”

And even with vaccination, officials have urged everyone to still follow the 3Ws: wear a mask, wash hands frequently, and watch your distance from others to avoid getting or spreading the virus that causes COVID-19.

"Vaccination doesn't mean that we're going to stop testing. We're going to need to test more," Nguyen said.

Nguyen said the government of Guam recently ordered an additional 125,000 antigen tests for Guam.

Continued testing will be needed "probably into the next year in order to put Guam where we are right now or better," he said.

Nguyen and Guam Hotel and Restaurant Association President Mary Rhodes presented a GHRA-AMC project that aims to rapidly test workers for COVID-19 in the hopes of reopening the tourism industry.

"This mass testing of employees is with a plan to get back to work safely and continue to maintain operations," Rhodes said.

The plan to regularly test employees will help improve public confidence and maintain operations so Guam doesn't have to return to shutting down businesses, GHRA said.

GHRA's plan under its Ta Na Homlu I Isla-Ta or "Let’s Heal our Island" initiative is to test at least 10,000.

The program aims to send teams to test employees at a location chosen by the participating employers, using rapid test kits.

Rhodes said now that the Department of Public Health and Social Services is administering the vaccines besides testing, GHRA and its partners can help with the mass testing to help reopen tourism.

"We hope that people will participate in this program to regularly test their employees. We’re really looking at all possible mix of industries and it’s not just hotels and restaurants that GHRA has," Rhodes said. "You don't have to be part of the GHRA to be a part of this program. Anyone can sign up."

Rhodes said the serology test costs $55 and an antigen test costs $100, but the latter can be reduced to $60 if Public Health allows GHRA to use Binax test kits from the federal government.

GHRA's request for support from the government of Guam using Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act funds wasn't approved, Rhodes said.

Rhodes, at the same time, said there's an average of 3,000 military personnel staying at Guam hotels, and this has been keeping the hotel industry afloat amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

They are in addition to military personnel who are here for military exercises, such as the Exercise Sea Dragon. Exercise participants are required to adhere to COVID-19 mitigation measures.

There are 16 hotels authorized to accept military personnel and contractors, Rhodes said.

Haidee Eugenio Gilbert

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