The new Director of the Maine Center for Disease Control (CDC) Dr. Puthiery Va joined the taxpayer-funded Maine Calling radio program Monday, urging listeners to take the latest COVID-19 vaccine and to wear masks.
Dr. Va, a University of New England graduate, became the head of the Maine CDC in August, after previously serving as the Director of Public Health for a population center of the Navajo Nation in Arizona.
Va was born in a Thai refugee camp after her parents fled the Communist Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and later immigrated to United States with the help of a sponsor family in Louisiana.
The new Maine CDC Director said Monday that her prior experience as an Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer at the U.S. CDC prepared her to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic during her time in Arizona.
Va told Maine Calling host Jennifer Rooks that although “we’re no longer in this emergency phase of the pandemic,” COVID is here to stay and “we’re still not out of the pandemic.”
“The virus itself continues to change and mutate, and it’s — the way it comes in these ebbs and — you know, this like, sort of, like, flows and waves, it’s not quite predictable,” Va said.
Va explained that the Maine CDC is no longer calling the latest COVID-19 vaccine a “booster” because it is similar to the seasonal influenza vaccine in that it is tailored to the latest strain of the virus which is currently circulating.
Instead, Va said, they are calling it the “updated 2023-2024 vaccine.”
After responding to various questions from listeners regarding the timing of their vaccines and travel plans, Rooks asked Va if the Maine CDC is noticing an uptick of COVID cases in the state.
According to Va, the Maine CDC’s analysis of waste water has shown “high activity” of COVID, but that the agency is focusing on hospitalizations and deaths to gauge the current risk and severity of the virus more closely than the number of cases.
Va told one caller during Monday’s program that even though they received the latest vaccine three days ago, the caller should still wear a mask while traveling over the coming days.
Rooks then asked Va what the Maine CDC knows about the current risks of not wearing a mask while traveling more generally.
“Yeah, and so this is not just at airports, it’s anytime you’re in an area where there’s a lot of people mingling and moving about,” Va said. “So it doesn’t always have to be an airport, it could also be the mall, or the Target.”
“And so, like, I know, like, at this point we’re all individually risk assessing ourselves, right?” she said. “You go into a building, you start looking at the ventilation — you know, how free is air moving?”
“If you’re going in, and you don’t feel comfortable and you want to mask up, please go ahead, feel free to mask up,” she said. “And I think it’s important to also stress that we should also respect other people that feel more comfortable masking up, because likely we don’t know the reason why.”
“It’s okay to mask up, and it’s okay for others to mask up as well,” she added.
Turning again to vaccines, Va said that of the reasons “universal coverage from six months and older” is recommended under the latest vaccine is the prevention of “long COVID.”
“What we do know, is the vaccine works,” Va said. “And the way it works, is that it reduces your likelihood of getting the virus, but, should you get the virus — cause that can still happen, even if you’re vaccinated — should you get the virus, you’re likely to get it in a more mild form and for a shorter period of time.”
“So the less time you’re symptomatic, the less likely you are to get long COVID,” she said.
Rooks then read a question from a listener regarding the rate of adverse side effects from COVID vaccines.
“A friend believes from an internet doctor that the vaccine is more dangerous than the disease — how many billions of people worldwide have received the vaccine and what is the rate of severe side effects?” The listener’s question read.
“Millions, hundreds of millions, have received the vaccine here in the United States,” the Maine CDC Director responded. “And the COVID vaccine, because of the pandemic, and because of everything that’s happened, is [probably] — it’s not even probably — it is the most scrutinized vaccine ever.”
“Its safety is so closely monitored,” Va said. “The risk of complications from COVID, such as inflammation of the heart — myocarditis, I mentioned long COVID — the risk of complications from COVID is much, much, much higher from the disease itself from the vaccine.”
Data from the U.S. CDC shows that although over 270 million Americans received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine as of May 2023, the number Americans who have received the previous updated booster dose is just 56 million, 17 percent of the total U.S. population.
The CDC states that for children ages 5 through 11, there were a total of 20 confirmed reports of myocarditis out of approximately 18.1 million doses given of the Pfizer vaccine between Nov. 2021 and April 2022.
That number is larger for males ages 12 through 15, with a myocarditis rate of around 70 cases per million doses — and even larger for males 16 through 17, with a rate of 105 myocarditis cases per million doses.
From the start of the pandemic in January 2020 through June of this year, the CDC reports that there have been a total of 1,071 deaths from COVID among children ages 5 through 18, and 588 total deaths for males ages 5 through 18.
The CDC states that data from the Vaccine Adverse Effects Reporting System (VAERS) shows that rates of myocarditis following COVID-19 vaccination are highest among males in their late teens and early 20s, usually following the second dose of the vaccine.
However, CDC says that serious cases of cardiac dysfunction following the vaccine are rare, and that the benefits for all children ages 6 months and older taking the vaccine outweigh the potential risks.