The nation has made significant progress, but the coronavirus pandemic is far from over, President Biden and top medical scientists say. That has not stopped a panoply of politicians from coast to coast from declaring a premature victory over the disease that has killed more than 520,000 Americans and infected 29 million people.
As infections, hospitalizations, and deaths have declined from scary peaks of recent months but still plateaued, governors in Texas and Mississippi rescinded coronavirus restrictions, abolishing mask requirements and allowing businesses to operate at 100% capacity.
Biden called the decisions “Neanderthal thinking.”
That, in turn, prompted pushback with a racist, xenophobic tint from Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, who defended his fully reopening his state. He accused Biden of easing immigration on the border, allowing what he asserted without evidence was immigrants to spread the coronavirus.
The president’s comment also provoked a bizarre display by Republicans like Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Marco Rubio of Florida, rising in peak faux disapproval of Biden — and defending Neanderthals, precursor humanoids who failed to make the evolutionary cut tens of thousands of years ago and went extinct. How exactly does defending cave dwellers advance the health and safety of Americans now?
Partisans of one party are not alone, though, in pushing new relaxation of public health measures designed to quash the pandemic. As the Washington Post reported:
“[R]ecent weeks have seen a flurry of decisions to increase occupancy limits on restaurants and bars and ease restrictions on stadiums and theaters, with announcements in a dozen states, from Michigan to New York to California. The nation’s top infectious-disease expert, Anthony S. Fauci, called state orders to lift mask mandates and restrictions ‘ill-advised … pointing to the plateauing infection numbers.”
Risks reaffirmed with restaurants and unmasked
Indeed, researchers from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that their studies show that, as the New York Times reported:
“Wearing masks … was linked to fewer infections with the coronavirus and Covid-19 deaths in counties across the United States. The researchers also found that counties opening restaurants for on-premises dining — indoors or outdoors — saw a rise in daily infections about six weeks later, and an increase in Covid-19 death rates about two months later. The study does not prove cause and effect, but the findings square with other research showing that masks prevent infection and that indoor spaces foster the spread of the virus through aerosols, tiny respiratory particles that linger in the air.”
California, which had won praise for its quick and sustained efforts to follow medical scientists’ recommendations to attack the pandemic, surprised many with not only wider re-opening of restaurants and other worrisome sites but also giving new allowances to theme parks (Disneyland and Universal City) and ball parks. As the Los Angeles Times reported:
“California theme parks and sports stadiums will be allowed to welcome back visitors as early as April 1 … While the changes don’t mean business as usual for the venues, they do reflect the state’s growing sentiment that, with coronavirus case rates on the decline and the Covid-19 vaccine rollout continuing to ramp up, it is now possible to resume some activities those that can be held outdoors with additional safety modifications …amusement parks will be eligible to reopen, with restrictions, in counties that are in the red tier — the second-strictest of California’s four-category reopening road map. Capacity will be limited to 15% for parks in counties that are in the red tier; the cap rises to 25% once a county progresses to orange and 35% upon reaching the most lenient tier, yellow. Officials said attendance will be limited to in-state visitors. Other restrictions will include no indoor dining and limits on indoor rides; details on those were still being worked out.”
The relaxing of public health measures concerns experts because, they say, nationwide vaccination campaigns continue to improve but to be spotty, leaving hard-hit communities of color, for example, lagging far behind in receiving shots that offer research-proven strong protection for patients from serious illness and hospitalization or death due to the coronavirus.
Vaccinations improving but research lags on transmission
Vaccines and the research on them have not concluded, however, that disease transmission is reduced or eliminated. This means that individuals may enjoy protection from the disease while still spreading it. The bigger fear is that persistent and still mostly unchecked spread of the coronavirus will foster even more viral mutations. These variants, studies suggest, may be more contagious, less affected by vaccines, and capable of causing greater harm. They have popped up in spots around the world, including Britain, South Africa, California, and New York.
As of March 5, CDC officials reported that 114 million vaccine doses had been delivered and 85 million administered. The agency says that ~29 million people (8.6% of the population) have gotten both of the two-dose vaccines. That’s progress, even with unacceptable, glaring inequitable vaccine practices occurring all too frequently.
The crush by politicians to ease pandemic public health measures also looks hard to defend against hard data, say for Texas, where the deaths and infections remain at unacceptably high levels — and with an uptick occurring, even as the governor lifts all restrictions (see CDC chart above).
In Texas, critics have assailed the governor’s pandemic actions, arguing they are political maneuvers to distract angry constituents over state governmental failures during a recent freeze, wide power blackout, and consequent disruption in potable water supplies. In California, pockets of hard-core GOP support are calcifying and angry about Newsom’s often erratic pandemic responses, leading to a rising effort to recall him in a special election. Public pandemic fatigue and impatience is palpable.
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’re not done with the coronavirus. We still have to deal not only with the horrors of the disease, but also the shambolic federal response to it, replete with a torrent of destructive falsehoods, anti-science and counter factual arguments, as well as an unacceptable assault on the ideas, beliefs, and institutions that knit together and did not seek to divide the country for centuries.
Staying safe and sensible
The evidence-based guidance is unchanged. We are urged still to practice excellent hygiene (especially robust handwashing), cover our faces (maybe with double masks), maintain distance, and avoid close, confined spaces with poor ventilation. If possible, individuals should stay around home and deal mostly with familiar folks in their single household. If you worry that you have been exposed to the disease, for heaven’s sake get tested. Testing has become much more available, and, sadly, as vaccinations have increased, testing has declined. This will not do.
As more people get vaccinated, and, tragically, as so many people have survived coronavirus infections, communities and the whole country may achieve the population-wide protections in the “herd immunity” effect, where the virus cannot find enough new victims to rage in and to burn further.
We’re not close to there, experts say. The rumbling is rising that, well, what about the vaccinated? Shouldn’t they be scot free with shots and a few critical weeks to build their immunity. The answer is not fully known, with the vaccines so new. Caution should be the byword, especially if the vaccines do not, as many shots do not, prevent asymptomatic transmission of the coronavirus.
The CDC is expected to provide guidelines for the vaccinated soon. No, no meddling or great conspiracy by the White House is blocking this advice (contrary to what occurred under the previous president). With all the public health messaging flying around — notably about the huge value of the one-shot vaccine that also is easier to store and why appropriate behaviors are still needed from the vaccinated — it may make common sense not to add the confusing blur with still-developing guidance about post-vaccine conduct.
Stay safe and healthy, taking the conservative approach if it makes sense to best protect yourself and your loved ones. If we’ve all come this far, it would be beyond a shame to be stricken now with the terrible infection with its clear possibility for long-term harms. We’ve all got a lot of work to do to beat the coronavirus, in the due time and sound ways to do so, so we get the country to a better place.