I HATE to remind you, but our race to the pandemic finish line is only half run.
Back in February in these pages I called this pandemic the race of our lives. Benchmarks passed since then show that was no exaggeration: COVID-19 has killed more than 3 million people worldwide, nearly 600,000 in the United States. Michigan is a global hotspot. More dangerous strains of the virus are spreading rapidly.
As predicted three months ago, this race is between vaccination and those emerging variants. The goal is herd immunity — that’s when about 75% of us have been vaccinated, closing off the viruses’ ability to transmit efficiently.
So how’s the competition going?
One in four Americans has now been fully vaccinated. About half have had at least one shot, which gives around 90 percent protection for an unknown length of time. More than 3.5 million are getting the shots every day. That’s great, but 167 million more people are not fully vaccinated – around a million Granite Staters. If full vaccination is the goal, we’re about a third of the way there. Dr. Anthony Fauci estimates we could achieve herd immunity by late summer or early fall, if all goes well.
But just as the experts feared, every day the variants are out-competing the original strain. A British variant called B.1.1.7, first identified here in December, is now dominant. It’s at least 60 percent more transmissible and deadly than the one that kicked off the pandemic. Four other dangerous mutants are spreading.
And every day about 70,000 new cases of COVID-19 arise. That’s less than a third of mid-January’s daily caseload, but more than last summer’s peak. As Michigan shows, the trajectory may still spike anywhere our collective guard is relaxed and new variants gain a foothold. Each new case is an opportunity for the virus to spread onward. And each new infection offers the virus millions more opportunities to mutate into a new, possibly more dangerous, mutant.
That’s the big picture. The microcosm is also troubling.
In Sandwich, my town, there’s been a lively recent debate on our community bulletin board about the safety and necessity of getting vaccinated against COVID-19.
Vaccine skeptics raise a flurry of questions: That the FDA-authorized vaccines were hastily developed and inadequately tested. Their manufacturers can’t be trusted because they stand to make billions. The vaccines constitute experimental gene therapy. The CDC is concealing evidence of serious side effects and vaccine deaths. Not enough research has been done on vaccine risk for subgroups. We don’t know how long vaccine immunity will last. The death rate from COVID-19 isn’t all that high.
Some allegations are false, others misleading, others pose reasonable concerns that need further research. But the overall effect is to sow doubt and anxiety about the safety and necessity of vaccination.
The overriding truth is that the two leading vaccines, those from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, are more effective than almost any other against any disease. And, fortunately, after 210 million doses have been delivered to Americans so far, there have been no serious danger signals. Possible blood-clotting problems with the third, from Johnson & Johnson, are rare, publicly disclosed and properly investigated.
There is zero evidence that COVID-19 can be vanquished by a healthy diet and vitamin D supplements.
We all yearn for an end to COVID-19 and a return to normal social interaction. Vaccination, along with continued behavioral precautions, is the surest, fastest way to get there — probably the only way. As in any race, time is of the essence, and time is on the side of the virus. The longer it takes to get to the herd immunity threshold, the more likely it is that variants will render current vaccines ineffective. That will require development and deployment of new vaccines, booster shots for the already-vaccinated, and more time.
There’s no way around it.