Now is the winter of our COVID discontent, made glorious by the summer sun of prospective vaccines.
With apologies to William Shakespeare, whose opening line of Richard III I have just mangled, the announcements by two vaccine makers of strongly positive trial results do indeed foretell sunny times ahead -- maybe even by next summer, though that's possibly optimistic. The discontent is about whether we can get through this awful winter without killing too many of us.
It's going to be an awful winter because COVID-19 has come roaring back worse than ever. European countries are locking down again. Some American states are starting to lock down, at least partially, too. Even governors in red states are starting to issue mask mandates.
Unfortunately, many Americans seem to have given up. They're frequenting crowded bars, throwing big wedding parties and ignoring masks. Even some of the fearful among us are letting down our guard, traveling, going to restaurants, doing more socializing.
I confess, I'm one of them. I'm still careful, but less careful than I was a few months ago. Bad on me.
It's called pandemic fatigue, and along with the onset of winter, which is forcing folks indoors, where the disease spreads more easily, it's one of the main reasons the virus is entering its most dangerous stage yet. One intriguing sign of fatigue is that Americans' interactions with social media stories about the virus have been plummeting even as new cases have been soaring. (https://www.axios.com/…) We're all just tired of reading about it.
Still, we who write about it have to continue writing when daily COVID-19 deaths are passing 1,500 nationally. That's not as high as last spring's 2,000-plus daily deaths but headed in that direction, following the 70% rise in cases over the last two weeks. (https://covidtracking.com/…) (https://www.wsj.com/…) The virus has now killed more than 250,000 Americans in nearly 10 months, more than are killed in a full year by every other cause of death except heart disease and cancer. (https://www.cdc.gov/…)
Perhaps most frightening, hospitalizations are way up. On Nov. 12 the COVID-19 Tracking Project reported that the number of people hospitalized with COVID had doubled in the previous two weeks with 47 states seeing an increase in hospitalizations. (https://covidtracking.com/…) In several states, including both Dakotas, COVID patients have occupied more than 20% of the hospital beds, twice the level at which hospitals become at risk for being overwhelmed. (https://www.npr.org/…)
Amid all this gloomy news came the vaccine announcements. The pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech said that the vaccine they're developing had proved 95% effective in its late-stage trials, 94% effective among older adults. The drug maker Moderna reported its vaccine was 94.5% effective. (https://www.nytimes.com/…)
Those results make quick approval by the Food and Drug Administration likely. The manufacturing and distribution of enough doses to cover everyone will take time -- it's a much more massive task than the public realizes. Still, there's reason to hope that by this time next year a fair number of Americans will have been vaccinated.
Moreover, the successes enjoyed by Pfizer and Moderna raise hopes that some of the many other drug makers that are working on vaccines will also come up with winners. By this time two years from now, there's a very good chance life will be back to something like normal.
Needless to say, a one-to-two-year time line won't help stanch the deaths during the next few discontented months. But having an end in sight may help Americans shake pandemic fatigue. Maybe, knowing that it won't go on forever, we can get back to taking this virus seriously.
Some of the states that haven't locked down or issued mask mandates are asking the public to exercise "personal responsibility" -- decide for ourselves whether to do things like wearing masks, washing hands, socially distancing and avoiding crowded, poorly ventilated indoor spaces. By personal responsibility, these states seem to be saying anything goes, whatever you choose is OK.
Personal responsibility, though, means more than just "I can do whatever I want." It also means "Doing the right thing is up to me and I should be held morally accountable for failing to do it."
That's why it's reckless to push "personal responsibility" without explaining to the public why taking precautions known to work is doing the right thing.
I say "known to work" because a growing body of evidence is obliterating any remaining doubts. Studies have long established that if you wear a mask you lessen the risk that you could pass the disease to others -- not 100%, but significantly. One of the most recent studies, at UCLA, found that cloth masks reduced particles from coughing volunteers by between 70% and 84%. (https://www.tandfonline.com/…)
Now there's evidence that if you wear a mask you also reduce the risk to yourself. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently posted a scientific brief citing studies showing that multi-layer masks with high thread counts can protect the wearer against as much as 50% of virus-bearing droplets. (https://www.cdc.gov/…) A University of Washington study published in October projected that 85% of Americans wearing masks would avoid 96,000 deaths through next February. If 95% wore masks, 130,000 lives would be saved. (https://www.nature.com/…)
If nothing else, give a thought to the poor, overworked doctors and nurses in our hospitals. They're drowning in cases even as many are still dismissing COVID as a hoax or no worse than the flu. They need the public to get serious about checking the spread of the disease.
Take it from the conservative governor of North Dakota, Doug Burgum: "You don't have to believe in COVID, you don't have to believe in a certain political party or not, you don't have to believe whether masks work or not. You can just do it because you know that one thing is very real. And that's that 100% of our (hospital) capacity is now being used." (https://www.washingtonpost.com/…)
Urban Lehner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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