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Vaccines Bring Hope As COVID’s Third Wave Hits

In welcome news and within a week of each other, pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Moderna announced breakthrough vaccines to combat the deadly coronavirus.

Pfizer and its German collaborator BioNTech, say their vaccine may be 90% effective in preventing COVID19 in participants, while Massachusetts-based Moderna expects a vaccine efficacy of 94.5%.

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.”

Realistically, to reap the benefits of having a vaccine, states global health expert Tom Bollyky, at least 75% of the population will need to be vaccinated and that will take time.

“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

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Corona Virus Opens a Pandora’s Box of Scams

If Willie Sutton were alive, he wouldn’t be robbing banks, more likely he’d be a scam artist, siphoning off a portion of the almost $70 million that Indiana consumers alone have reportedly lost to fraud even before the COVID-19 pandemic opened up a pandora’s box of new scam opportunities.

“At the Federal Trade Commission, we always say the fraudsters follow the headlines,” explained Todd Kossow, Director of the Midwest Region of the FTC. “They take advantage of the major news stories of the day and find new ways to access consumer’s personal financial information. The corona virus pandemic has been no exception to that.”

Kossow’s remarks were delivered at an on-line convening for ethnic media primarily covering Indianapolis and nearby regions. In addition to FTC staff, presenters included representatives from state and local agencies responsible for consumer protection, as well as from non-profits like the AARP, the Better Business Bureau, and others on the frontlines of battling scams and deceptive marketing practices.

“Scammers are like vampires who bleed their victims not just of money but of hope and self-respect,” said conference moderator Sandy Close, director of Ethnic Media Services. Close urged media participants “to shine a light on these activities through your media coverage and your community service.”

Susan Bolin, from the Better Business Bureau, concurred with the need for increased media coverage and involvement. While acknowledging active media participation in Fort Wayne and Evansville, “we still need more help. Just imagine the impact that we can have if every media outlet partnered with us.” Ultimately, Bollin said she wants to make Indianapolis a scam-free zone.

The goal is a daunting one.

Scams that have proliferated since the pandemic include large up-front money payments to companies claiming they can assist homeowners to renegotiate mortgage payments they missed because of COVID linked job layoffs; or scams that promise small businesses an inside track to securing federal paycheck protection funds to retain employees.

“So what are the main types of COVID-19 related scams that we’re seeing?” Kossow asked. “Scammers who are pitching so-called treatments and cures for COVID-19 without any proof that they work. The FTC has sent warning letters to nearly 250 companies making such claims.”

Presenters cited several “red flags” typically associated with scams: run out and buy a gift card to make a payment; a money wire transfer is required; an upfront payment is necessary before a prize can be claimed; authentication of your bank account number or verification of your Social Security number as mandatory in order to speed or complete the application or funding process.

Several speakers said that humiliation over being scammed often discourages victims from reporting what happened. There’s also a sense that trying to recover the money is a hopeless task. This is particularly true with gift card transactions. At least with payments made on credit cards, victims have a bank record to point to in filing a fraud claim. Moreover, victims have a self-interest in reporting scams, Andrew Johnson, Chief of Staff of the FTC’s Division of Consumer Affairs, emphasized

“Since July, 2018, In just a two-year period, the FTC mailed $23.6 million to almost 140,000 people in the state of Indiana, which is pretty remarkable,” Johnson said. “Generally, when the FTC settles or wins a case, and we get money that we can return back to consumers, one of the main ways we determine who to send money to, is we look back at our database of who reported to us.”

One net result of the pandemic’s advent is a decrease in face-to-face counseling that would encourage reporting to the FTC.

Cheryl Koch-Martinez, who works at Indiana Legal Services, said her organization assists low-income residents in understanding their financial options and advising them on consumer fraud cases. Given the imperative for social-distancing, “face-to-face communication is just not there,” she said. Telephone and e-mail are inefficient substitutes for the sensitive conversations that need to occur.

Reverend David Green, Senior Pastor, Purpose of Life Ministry, shared the experience of a maintenance engineer at his church. Originally from El Salvador,

he immigrated to the United States 20 years ago and obtained citizenship. He sent $1,000 to purchase a trailer in Kentucky and then sought to make arrangements with the sellers to personally pick it up. “They said, ‘no,’” Green reported. “They said they needed to deliver it and that if he would go to PayPal and send $600 for the insurance on the delivery of the trailer, that when the trailer got delivered, he would get the $600 back.”

In this case, Reverend Green encouraged his church’s employee to file a report with the FTC and the Better Business Bureau after the seller would answer phone calls but promptly hang up.

Several speakers highlighted the debilitating effects of scams that prey on people’s loneliness. While romance scams come readily to mind, scammers also have used a victim to become unwitting money mules, someone who moves money to a third-party. The use of third parties makes the origin and movement of financial transactions more difficult for authorities to trace.

Such was the case Assistant U.S. Attorney MaryAnn Mindrum described of an elderly woman who was told she’d won the lottery and had to pay fees before she could secure her winnings. She did not win the lottery, lost a substantial amount in so-called fees, “but,” Mindrum explained, “she talked to the scammer for two years!” Mindrum said her office stepped in to end the relationship, extradited the scammer to the U.S. and successfully prosecuted him. The woman was not charged.