Remaining hopeful and COVID-conscious in the upcoming semester

Monday, December 7, 2020 - 12:15pm

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Ten months after COVID-19 made its American debut in the state of Washington, the United States continues to struggle with record numbers of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. One in 378 U.S. residents tested positive for COVID-19 during the first week of November, with cases up 41%, hospitalizations up 20% and deaths up 23% from the week before. The number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 doubled in the first two weeks of the month as states scrambled to release new pandemic orders, urging their residents to skip their holiday dinners to mediate the spread of disease. 

Though it has been excruciatingly difficult for public health officials to get people to cooperate with their guidelines since shutdowns first took hold in March, the original mediation efforts succeeded in preventing up to 60 million novel coronavirus cases. In the beginning, the general public — for the most part — cooperated with the pandemic orders, avoiding gatherings, wearing masks and staying home as much as possible. It didn’t take long, however, for groups to begin protesting the orders, refusing all scientific data and outwardly flouting others’ health so they could avoid placing a piece of cloth over their nose and mouth. 

As the virus has ravaged rural America and other parts of the country previously left untouched, this selfish opposition to science has diminished. Now, Americans are simply tired. Those who live in more secluded areas followed guidelines in March and April only to watch cases start to arise in their communities after the initial nationwide wave of cases and panic passed. Others have witnessed their friends and family (and president) test positive for COVID-19 and recover without much of a fuss, giving them a false sense of security about the potential harm of the disease. No matter its roots, pandemic fatigue is now sweeping all corners of the nation. 

For those of us who have been taking all relevant precautionary measures since the initial shutdown orders, watching our friends, families and neighbors disregard guidelines and contribute to the burden placed on hospitals has been agonizing. As we watch the number of hospitalizations skyrocket, health care workers burn out and hospitals fall into critical financial hardship, we fear an increased death rate is inevitable and grasp for any glimmer of hope. 

Fortunately, that hope has arrived. Two vaccine production companies — Moderna and Pfizer — have released preliminary data indicating that their Phase 3 COVID-19 vaccines maintain an efficacy rate of up to 95%. If the two vaccines are given an emergency use authorization in the coming weeks, up to 20 million people in the U.S. could be vaccinated in the month of December — primarily those in vulnerable groups, such as people over the age of 65 and/or those with autoimmune diseases, as well as health care workers. 

As one of the many who have struggled to maintain wellness due to the mental and emotional stress brought on by the pandemic, news of a potential vaccine brought me some of the most joy I’ve had this year. Still, this doesn’t mean we can simply return to normalcy immediately upon the approval of these vaccines. Reaching herd immunity requires adequate issuance of the vaccines, which necessitates that people both have access to them and are willing to take them. With the complications that will hinder the distribution of the vaccine and the time it will take to reach satisfactory levels of herd immunity, we still have a long way to go before we can go to the grocery store without a mask. 

To get expert-level opinions on the complications arising with the incredible news of two highly successful vaccines, I reached out to some of our own public health professionals at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. 

“In my own research, I've found that there is much higher acceptance of vaccines with higher effectiveness than vaccines with lower effectiveness,” Abram Wagner, a research assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the Public Health School, said. “The bad news is that the vaccine requires an ultra-cold freezer, which many places don't have, which could limit distribution of the vaccine, regardless of whether people want it or not.”

Since the Pfizer vaccine requires temperatures that plunge below negative 94 degrees Fahrenheit, states are clamoring to purchase the ultra-cold freezers necessary for storage of the vaccine. However, with hospitals already facing budgetary crises, some of the more financially constrained hospitals — such as those in rural areas — may not be able to afford them. There is still hope for these hospitals, however, since the Moderna vaccine can be stored in a standard scientific freezer. Still, the distrust in science along with skepticism stemming from past medical experiments on non-consenting Americans means political hesitation surrounding the vaccines remain prominent concerns. 

“Skepticism or disbelief in government agencies — and science in general — has been one of the most lamentable consequences of the last four years of the Trump administration,” Emily Youatt, director of Undergraduate Education at the School of Public Health, said. “Rebuilding trust in both science and social institutions will be critical to ending the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Mercifully, pandemic fatigue seems to be a greater issue among students at this University than distrust in science and social institutions. With that said, considering the sacrifices that students have made in their daily lives due to the pandemic, we must be careful not to act prematurely in our attempts to return to life as it was before COVID-19 upended it. I asked Youatt what her thoughts were on this return to normalcy, and when we could expect to truly believe that the pandemic is over. 

“The news about a new vaccine (or vaccines), is, as others have already said, unmitigated good news. But there is a big difference between the development of an effective vaccine and the wide-scale distribution of a vaccine,” she said. “Most of us are still months away from being able to receive the vaccine, so for the foreseeable future, all members of our university community must continue to follow public health guidelines — to wear masks, to avoid large indoor gatherings, to social distance and to wash our hands. These are simultaneously very easy and very challenging things to implement in our daily lives.”

Even though pharmacies and public health departments are developing plans to begin distributing the vaccine this month, and the University will begin its rollout as early as Dec. 15, the vast majority of our student population still must actively participate in reducing the spread of the virus. Because of this, in my communications with Youatt, she stated that though she is “cautiously optimistic” that many things will appear more familiar by next fall, she acknowledges that “‘back to normal’ … may not happen for a very long time.” 

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to predict when we’ll be able to put down our masks and return to life as it was prior to the outbreak — but that’s not the only factor relevant to overcoming this pandemic. The societal and cultural impacts will last, delaying — or even prohibiting — our return to normalcy. “Even for those of us who haven't gotten sick or haven't experienced a close loss of life, this pandemic has marked us.” Youatt continued, “... From my perspective, I think there needs to be more time and attention to what has been compromised, eroded and fundamentally shifted during the past nine months.”

The news of these vaccines brings us that glimmer of hope that so many of us have been craving, but the long-term impacts of this pandemic reach far beyond the cases, hospitalizations and even deaths. There remains a long road to the societal-level healing necessary to overcome all that we’ve been through in the past nine months. On campus, this means being gracious toward those who have managed their actions in response to the pandemic in ways that you may not agree with. At the same time, we must give those who have been hurt by the actions of others the time and space to heal. Overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic requires more than continuing to wear a mask and social distance — it necessitates patience, compassion and civility. 

As we prepare to cozy up with our closest loved ones for this holiday season, we must remember that even though the vaccine is here, the pandemic is not over. Winter 2021 will see an even quieter campus than this fall, an eerie reminder of the reality that we continue to face. Those of us returning to campus must continue to avoid large gatherings, wear our masks and follow the state and local guidelines, no matter how close we are to receiving the vaccine. Even more, our entire campus community — both those who will be here in person and those attending classes and events virtually — must remain patient and compassionate with our peers, no matter the extent of our frustration. After all, we’re all error-prone humans trying to survive a complex and unprecedented pandemic. 

Elayna Swift can be reached at elaynads@umich.edu


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