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In welcome news and within a week of each other, pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Moderna announced breakthrough vaccines to combat the deadly coronavirus.
It’s a promising sign in the yearlong battle against an out-of-control pandemic. But though the trends in clinical trials seem positive, don’t throw out your face masks just yet. Experts warn of a long wait before the general public gets access to these newly minted vaccines.
It may be spring 2021 before the vaccine is widely available, which means the coronavirus will continue unabated for a few months more. COVID19 positivity rates reported by the Kaiser Family Foundation indicate that every state is now a blood-red ‘hotspot.’
As epidemiologists predicted, the third wave of coronavirus ‘forest fires’ are raging across the country with devastating effect. Currently the US leads the worldwide COVID death toll at over 250K and counting; we also have surpassed the 11 million mark in total COVID cases.
Despite warnings from experts, the federal coronavirus task force failed to deliver a comprehensive plan to counter the coronavirus threat. In fact, their strategy has been to “just let the infection run…which is not based on science,” remarked Dr. Ashish Jha, Dean, School of Public Health at Brown University, at a November 13th EMS briefing on the pandemic.
Without adequate federal funding or guidelines, each state has devised its own COVID19 response, but many did not heed the science on containing the spread.
That haphazard approach has had catastrophic consequences. Coronavirus cases are surging across the country. Since November 1, more than 1000 Americans have died of the coronavirus everyday and that number is steadily rising.
“This is not a surprise,” said Dr. Nirav Shah of Stanford University’s Clinical Excellence Research Center. “We predicted that in the fall, with people staying indoors and without broad protections ..such as masking, and not gathering in large groups, the numbers would continue to rise.”
Desperate to jumpstart their economies and reopen businesses and schools for a populace weary of quarantines, lockdowns and job losses, states made some bad choices by ignoring the science, said Dr.Jha. Several states (the Dakotas for example), raced to get back to normal by rolling back restrictions on large gatherings, travel and mask mandates. According to the AARP only 35 states mandated face coverings in public. In Boston for example, schools closed but casinos stayed open. “Those are the wrong tradeoffs,” added Dr. Jha.
Inevitably, the subsequent spike in COVID19 rates has left the country scrambling to reimpose certain restrictions; even so, cases are mounting. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports hotspots in every state. In fact, ‘super spreader’ events are happening even at the White House.
The COVID Tracking Project currently (as of Nov. 15) has recorded a staggering 76,000 hospitalizations and over 155,000 confirmed cases a day. Experts at the briefing say that figure is much higher.
“Hospitals are being overwhelmed,” warned Dr. Tung Ngyuen (Professor of Medicine, UCSF), as they face bed shortages and burnout from healthcare workers who have “been doing this close to seven or eight months now.”
“We are in the worst moment in the pandemic” said Dr. Jha. He admitted he is baffled by the disconnect between how bad things are and how little attention the country is paying to it. “Right now we have about 150 thousand new cases being identified every day. But the truth is that the true number of infections occurring in the US right now, is between 300 and 400 thousand a day, maybe even closer to 500 thousand. We’re missing them because our testing is inadequate. All those people who are not being identified are of course out there spreading it to others. We are in a moment of exponential growth. We will get to two thousand deaths a day by mid-December.”
Calling it ‘unconscionable,’ Dr. Jha estimates that a 100 thousand more people will die between now and Inauguration Day (January 20th).
However, the advent of two promising vaccines may be a start in the right direction, even though the world has a long wait before it’s rescued from the virus.
“The reality is that it’s just 10 to 20 million doses maximum by the end of the year,” said Dr. Shah. “But it’s going to be some time before we get the kind of widespread availability of multiple vaccines, with secure supply chains to get everyone the two doses they need to actually start to achieve even partial herd immunity.”
It’s unlikely the ‘mRNA vaccines’, created from brand new technology and currently awaiting FDA approval, will arrive before the year end warn experts. Initially, limited supplies of the vaccine will likely be rationed and given to frontline healthcare workers, the vulnerable and the elderly. It could be spring before most of America gets the vaccine.
Though the clinical trials have produced strong results, enough data is not yet available to determine the longevity of the vaccine’s effects, or even its side effects. No one knows what level of protection it will offer younger vs older people, or whether we will need regular vaccinations like the flu shot.
The logistics of storing and distributing the vaccine are equally difficult. The vaccine has to be stored at extremely low temperatures which will make its distribution to remote and rural areas challenging and especially so among communities of color, where “skepticism is high and strong.”
“We are entering the hardest days of the pandemic,” said Dr. Jha on Twitter. “The next two months will see a lot of infections and deaths. But he added, “There is a light at the end of the tunnel. Today, that light got a bit brighter.”
The disregard for advice from health experts and a lack of trust in science have precipitated some of the worst outbreaks so far, so it’s time say experts, for leaders and the general public to “rebuild the trust” and to stop politicizing the science.
Getting back to normal in the short term will mean that people have to take precautions to avoid transmissions until they can roll up their sleeves to be immunized.
Testing has to ramp up. But in the meanwhile, said Dr. Jha, “Wearing masks are a good thing to do for yourself, you family and community.”
Meera Kymal is the contributing editor at India Currents