Vaccines are designed to prevent significant illness; they don’t prevent transmission.
We are losing the war against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. More than 460,000 Americans and greater than 2.2 million people around the globe have died from it.
Viruses are smart. They constantly mutate in order to “stay alive” and infect more people. There are numerous reports regarding new strains. One is our own home-grown Los Angeles variant. Should we be concerned about Brazilian, South African, and UK coronavirus strains? Yes. They are here. They are easier to transmit. They may cause more severe disease. And they may be better able to evade our new defense system: the vaccines that were just released in mid-December.
Meanwhile, our hospital system is on life support as demand for nurses and ICU beds outpaces the supply. Even the field hospital I work in is near capacity. We don’t have a bed problem; we can’t find enough nurses.
So, can we win this war? Well, that depends on us. We have the knowledge and the armor to fight back and protect us from the virus. Washing one’s hands, avoiding crowds, maintaining social distancing of at least six feet, and wearing masks are mantras that we have been hearing since the start of the pandemic.
Masks work. Just take a look at the record low number of flu cases so far this year. Now is the time to double down on mask-wearing. And not all masks are created equal. A surgical mask is much better than a cloth one, and an N95 is best of all. It blocks 95 percent of viral particles. And double-masking will even further reduce transmission. Anti-masking, relaxing COVID restrictions, COVID fatigue, and COVID denial are all losing strategies.
Our other big defensive weapon, as noted, are the vaccines. They are safe. They are effective. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been our sole defense to date. Scientists worldwide have developed three additional new vaccines, which will likely receive Food and Drug Administration (FDA) emergency use authorization. They are from AstraZeneca, Novavax, and Johnson & Johnson. More will follow in the months ahead.
Getting shots into arms as quickly as possible is our new challenge. We are in a race against time to vaccinate before the virus can mutate into strains that render the vaccine ineffective.
The initial vaccine rollout was botched. Our federal, state, and local governments need to do a better job. Israel has already vaccinated more than 57 percent of their population. We are only at 10 percent. The good news is that the number of daily vaccine doses given around the U.S. has been increasing steadily since Inauguration Day. We may even be able to exceed President Biden’s pledge of 100 million Americans being vaccinated in his first 100 days in office.
The new vaccines will help a lot. Data from the Johnson & Johnson vaccine trial show that it’s 85 percent effective in preventing significant disease. Best of all, it’s a single shot, and doesn’t need freezer storage. That means it will be particularly useful in reaching rural Americans and humans around the world who live in limited-resource environments.
Remember that vaccines are designed to prevent significant illness. They don’t prevent transmission. That’s why vaccinated individuals will still need to wear masks.
The biggest vaccine challenge may be encouraging at least 70 percent of the population to receive it, in order to achieve herd immunity. A survey report of a large health system in upstate New York released just last week showed that one-third of their healthcare workers are leery about getting it. The percentage is even higher among the general population. Building trust in authorities and confidence in these vaccines is essential to combating this virus.
We are in for a big fight. But we can win the war to defeat SARS-CoV-2 if enough Americans do their part, get vaccinated, and observe the strict recommendations of our public health experts.