It’s everywhere and nowhere: Coronavirus and the risks that remain for seniors and unvaccinated

changingcovidtollap2022wp-300x216The coronavirus pandemic has become such a central part of so many people’s lives that the temptation is great to ignore its persistent, calamitous effect — and how some of the worst of these can be dealt with more than ever in relatively easy, safe, convenient ways.

Looking recent data about the disease, it is possible to start to downplay the virus, suggesting it could be reaching the endemic stage in which it still poses high perils but is not a crisis condition, as it has been for months now. Consider, for example, how widespread coronavirus infections have become, especially due to the recent surge involving the highly contagious Omicron variant. As the New York Times reported:

“Sixty percent of Americans, including 75% of children, had been infected with the coronavirus by February, federal health officials reported … — another remarkable milestone in a pandemic that continues to confound expectations. The highly contagious Omicron variant was responsible for much of the toll. In December 2021, as the variant began spreading, only half as many people had antibodies indicating prior infection, according to new research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While the numbers came as a shock to many Americans, some scientists said they had expected the figures to be even higher, given the contagious variants that have marched through the nation over the past two years.”

The disease’s prevalence might offer comfort to some Americans, who likely do not understand that getting a case of the coronavirus does not guarantee an individual cannot be reinfected, especially as the virus mutates and variants abound. Experts are still studying how much protection an infection provides and how long it lasts.

With so many people having had coronavirus bouts of differing severity, and with hundreds of millions of Americans having gotten some level of immunization against the disease, perhaps the country, at long last, has built more of protective bulwark against the pandemic, which even Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert thinks may be shifting into a different stage.

The shifting face, again, of those dying due to coronavirus

Dig into the data, though, and plenty of disturbing realities of the pandemic emerge, as the Washington Post reported:

“Unvaccinated people accounted for the overwhelming majority of deaths in the United States throughout much of the coronavirus pandemic. But that has changed in recent months, according to a Washington Post analysis of state and federal data. The pandemic’s toll is no longer falling almost exclusively on those who chose not to get shots, with vaccine protection waning over time and the elderly and immunocompromised — who are at greatest risk of succumbing to Covid-19, even if vaccinated — having a harder time dodging increasingly contagious strains.

“The vaccinated made up 42% of fatalities in January and February during the highly contagious omicron variant’s surge, compared with 23% of the dead in September, the peak of the delta wave, according to nationwide data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed by The Post. The data is based on the date of infection and limited to a sampling of cases in which vaccination status was known. As a group, the unvaccinated remain far more vulnerable to the worst consequences of infection — and are far more likely to die — than people who are vaccinated, and they are especially more at risk than people who have received a booster shot.”

As the newspaper further explained:

“’It’s still absolutely more dangerous to be unvaccinated than vaccinated,’ said Andrew Noymer, a public health professor at the University of California at Irvine who studies Covid-19 mortality. ‘A pandemic of — and by — the unvaccinated is not correct. People still need to take care in terms of prevention and action if they became symptomatic.’ A key explanation for the rise in deaths among the vaccinated is that covid-19 fatalities are again concentrated among the elderly. Nearly two-thirds of the people who died during the omicron surge were 75 and older, according to a Post analysis [see figure above], compared with a third during the delta wave. Seniors are overwhelmingly immunized, but vaccines are less effective and their potency wanes over time in older age groups.

“Experts say they are not surprised that vaccinated seniors are making up a greater share of the dead, even as vaccine holdouts died far more often than the vaccinated during the omicron surge, according to the CDC. As more people are infected with the virus, the more people it will kill, including a greater number who are vaccinated but among the most vulnerable. The bulk of vaccinated deaths are among people who did not get a booster shot, according to state data provided to The Post. In two of the states, California and Mississippi, three-quarters of the vaccinated senior citizens who died in January and February did not have booster doses. Regulators in recent weeks have authorized second booster doses for people over the age of 50, but administration of first booster doses has stagnated.”

In case the key takeaways for now seem too nuanced or difficult, they are not.

We are not done with the pandemic — and the coronavirus doesn’t care how casual we wish to be about the death and debilitation it can cause. Sure, infections are lower than they have been, though they are rising and may be understated due to the rise of home testing. Hospitals for now aren’t in a pandemic panic, though the coronavirus cases they are treating are rising. Deaths have fallen. But the nation still is creeping toward an official 1 million toll — a brutal milestone that probably was exceeded some time ago due to under reporting of coronavirus fatalities.

Vaccines, face masks, and boosters

Moderna, the maker of a hugely used, largely safe and effective vaccine, says its clinical trials justify allowing pediatricians and others to give on an emergency basis the youngest kids — those 6 and under  — lower, multiple doses of vaccine to safeguard them against the virus.

Experts who have independently considered the risks and benefits concede the Moderna shots don’t offer the remarkably high viral protection that adult vaccines do. Still, the numbers are better than what they might for unvaccinated kids. And the indications are good that vaccinating this last holdout group could advance further the battle to quell the pandemic.

With boosters for seniors and others, and with vaccinations for young folks, a painful concern persists and even expands: Have the counter factual vaccine opponents, whether hesitant or outright extreme, cast such a political and anti-science cloud over shots so as to dim the potent role they play in preventing infections’ debilitation and death — not only for the coronavirus but for a range of other diseases?

The Biden Administration has pledged to push hard now, too, to increase awareness about and availability of antiviral medications to help those soon after they are diagnosed with the coronavirus infection. Vice President Kamala Harris, who tested positive, quickly started taking the drug Paxlovid, which has shown it can reduce the coronavirus’ capacity to make patients so sick they require hospitalization, or they die. U.S. officials want doctors to more readily prescribe Paxlovid, which they say is now plentiful. More patients with the coronavirus should get the drug via “test and treat” settings, notably at increasing numbers of local pharmacies.

Those with heightened vulnerability to the virus — those who are older, immunocompromised, overweight, and with underlying conditions, or individuals from hard-hit communities of color — still should stay careful, including by keeping on their masks. And, yes, so-called one-way masking has protective benefits. Face covering, just to remind, may be the requirement still in parts of the country.

A word to the wise: Don’t toss out those masks yet. The savvy will want to build up their supply, nabbing test kits, too (free from the federal government, including a second round of them, and delivered to your door). Just in case.

The vaccines remain life changers and life savers. Why aren’t more nursing home staff getting them still, notably with an unusually high number of them having received questionable exemptions? If you have not gotten your shots, please do so, boosters and all, pronto. If you haven’t chatted with your doctor for a bit, you should — especially about whether your individual health would benefit from an additional dose of vaccine and when might be the time to get it. Parents should discuss potential booster shots for their kids with their pediatricians. (Get the young folks caught up on their shots now if you can, too.) If you have been exposed or think you have gotten infected, please get tested — and quarantine or isolate to protect yourself and others.

 

 

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