The national vaccination campaign has picked up measurable momentum. Coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, and deaths continue to recede from scary winter highs. Even cautious state and local officials are easing public health restrictions.
Can it be that the pandemic will be enough in check that Americans can look forward to small family barbecues for the Fourth of July?
President Biden, in his first national broadcast address on the anniversary of the global declaration of a coronavirus pandemic, described that goal as he talked both about the national and personal sorrow of dealing with the worst public health catastrophe in a century while also seeing palpable progress in reining in the disaster.
Biden implored his audience to keep up their shared altruism. That means maintaining great hygiene (especially hand washing), distancing, face covering, avoiding closed and poorly ventilated spaces, and sticking still around home with members of a single household.
The coronavirus vaccines are increasing significantly in supply, as are places for people to get shots. The demand still is not met. But federal officials say the administration met its announced goal early and more than 100 million doses of vaccine were administered as of March 12 — in roughly half the time that Biden promised this would happen.
With deals made with makers and them hitting their manufacturing goals and more, the president called on states and local governments to offer vaccines to all who want them by May 1. This could mean the country could hit his targets earlier than planned and could see much greater normality, including those July 4th celebrations of greater independence from the coronavirus.
Lockdowns end in nursing homes, and guidance issued for vaccinated
The shoots of hope and optimism already are showing.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has sought under Biden to restore both its conservative and authoritative guidance to the public about infectious outbreaks, has issued new guidelines — both for the vaccinated and for beleaguered residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
In both cases, the CDC has urged continued care and caution.
But the agency largely has lifted the nursing home lockdowns, notably because residents and staff at the facilities from coast to coast were among the first targeted for vaccination campaigns. That has led to a plunge in coronavirus cases and deaths, though officials are still working to coax health staff to emulate residents’ embrace of vaccines.
The CDC said that facilities, if possible, should encourage visitation of the elderly, injured, and sick (not with the coronavirus), even by the unvaccinated, but outdoors, if possible. Care should be taken with indoor visitation but it, too, has been deemed mostly safe in a significant boost for the vulnerable. They have been left frightened, isolated, alone, and lonely for months as the coronavirus took a terrible toll, killing more than 150,000 facility residents, according to the New York Times, and infecting more than 640,000. Deaths in the care centers accounted for roughly a third of all coronavirus fatalities.
As for the rapidly increasing numbers of the vaccinated, the CDC has said they should keep up best practices with health safeguards, notably face covering, until more research determines how successfully the coronavirus vaccines can quash the infection’s spread, including from those who may be asymptomatic and themselves resistant to the disease. Still, small gatherings have been deemed mostly safe when all concerned have been fully vaccinated and their immunity has been given a few weeks to develop to the max. In these contained meetups, the fully vaccinated do not need to cover their faces or distance, the CDC has advised.
Non-essential travel, for now, is still not recommended.
Health experts say their guidance likely will shift as greater numbers of people get vaccinated, though the nation, even with its vaccination campaign intensifying, remains far from achieving the wide-scale safeguards from “herd immunity.” That condition occurs when so many people in a given group have either gotten sick and recovered from an infection, acquiring protection, or they have been fully vaccinated and gain immunity so that the coronavirus or other disease(s) cannot rage in a population and outbreaks effectively end.
Challenges still with equity, access, and resistance
Although experts are finding more causes for optimism in the battle against the pandemic, some big challenges still must be tackled. Public information campaigns are going full tilt, including by all but one of the living, onetime U.S. presidents and their spouses (except Trump, who, with his wife, declined to attend the Biden inaugural, where the ads were recorded) to urge people to take the coronavirus vaccines because they have been shown to be safe and effective.
Equity issues remain a big obstacle, though commentators and public opinion experts say that the much-discussed hesitancy problems in communities of color now may be about access and not doubt. Biden officials have increased efforts to reach hard-hit and underserved groups by targeting vaccination programs through community clinics, local pharmacies, churches, nonprofits, and pop-up locations and mobile delivery programs, as well as by running mass sites, say, at big sports facilities, many of which are in or near poor, black, and Latino populations.
The latest opinion research has surfaced a potentially thorny concern, with white, older Republicans expressing some of the highest resistance to taking coronavirus vaccines. Conservative media have carried extreme and anti-vaccination content, incorporating it into a story line of wild conspiracies, including the false claims of election hijinks blamed on GOP losses in the November elections.
The anti-vax virulence is not only counter factual but confounding, since right-wing extremists should recognize, as politicians across the spectrum have, that the 45th president and medical scientists deserve high praise for the rapid, successful development of multiple, novel coronavirus vaccines. It also has become public that Trump and his wife, both of whom suffered Covid-19 infections and recovered, got vaccinated, too, before they left the White House.
Still, public health officials sooner rather than later may confront a changed pandemic landscape, where most people have coronavirus protection due to illness or inoculation while a sizable chunk of the population cannot or will not use a safe, effective means to keep them from getting sick, possibly seriously and for a sustained time, or dying. What happens then, especially with prospects imminent that vaccine supplies will flip and far exceed demand?
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damages that can be inflicted on them by an array of awful circumstances and things, including: dangerous drugs, risky and defective products, abuse and neglect in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, and car, motorcycle, and truck crashes. In these cases, a crowd of problem people and institutions — these can include doctors, hospitals, insurers, regulators, and politicians — may crow about the need to move on, settle up, and they fast forget the lonely agony of the suffering.
It can, however, take a long time for patients to recover from terrible illness or injury. Harms can last a lifetime. Patients may need medical services, as well as financial and other support for months or years. They also need closure and justice for wrongs done, as well as the sense that they may be able to help others avoid the problems that afflicted them.
We are not done with the coronavirus and the huge trauma it has inflicted on us all. President Biden won much praise for his nationwide address, balancing both our collective need to be cautious and careful, as well as humbled and mournful for what the pandemic has put us all through. And yet, still, we have reasons for hope and optimism. He said we all, with decisions and actions today, will determine our tomorrow. He said we can only do it not alone but together. Here is hoping that we can dig and do the work we must, not just to recover from a rotten year but to put ourselves, our loved ones, and our country in a far healthier and better place.