By David M. Greenwald
It has been a year since the first COVID cases were reported in the US, we still have nearly two months before we mark the year anniversary of shutdowns, we are watching as the economy continues to struggle, cases have surged and peaked for now, and the vaccine roll out has been slower than hoped.
We have passed 400,000 deaths and headed toward half a million sometime in February. Current projections are that 75 percent of the people won’t be vaccinated until late September—and that might be optimistic, given vaccine resistance in the population.
When we look back on this, the question will remain: how many lives would have been saved had we simply taken this more seriously? Segments of the population saw this as relatively low risk for them. We saw resistance to things like masks—choosing to view it as a freedom issue and an issue of fear rather than reasonable health precautions.
People have refused to stop meeting in large groups, and have fought to reopen schools and churches.
One thing people never seemed to take into consideration—viruses can change and mutate very rapidly. And so a virus that was a relatively low threat to populations could become a larger threat.
In short, by prolonging this pandemic, by failing to adhere to best practices, we have allowed the virus to take hold, and perhaps pose an even greater threat even as we appear to have the means to finally thwart the virus.
British government’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance said at a news conference on Friday that while the data remains somewhat uncertain, “there is evidence that there is an increased risk for those who have the new variant.”
Is it a big shift? No. But it is there.
The example he gave was for a man in his 60s. With the original version of the virus, the projected risk for death was 10 in 1000, or about 1 percent. With the new variant, it is 13 or 14 in 1000, or 1.3 or 1.4 percent.
That’s a 30 to 40 percent higher risk for death, but Vallance stressed that “the evidence is not yet strong” and more research is needed.
Not only is the variant more deadly, but it is much more transmissible—between 30 to and 70 percent.
Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization’s technical lead on COVID-19, said they are looking at it, they have not found so far an increase in severity, but warned that more transmission alone could lead to more deaths since it could further “overburden” a health care system.
The evidence for the new variant being more deadly is in a paper prepared by a group of scientists that advises the government on new respiratory viruses, based on several studies, the AP reported.
Paul Hunter, Professor in Medicine at the University of East Anglia, said “the conclusion about this probable increased lethality comes from analyses made by several different groups, though working with essentially the same data.
“There is quite a bit of difference in the estimated increased risk of death between the different analyses, though most but not all show increased risk of death,” he said.
The combination of factors here, while not necessarily alarming, signal that this thing could get worse rather than better unless we take steps to arrest the pandemic as we attempt to get more vaccine to the population. It is also a reminder that we should not be playing with fire—calculations for death rates and transmission are not set in stone and can get worse.
President Biden in his first few days in office has put forth several changes, including a face mask and social distancing mandate in federal buildings.
He announced he is bringing back an Obama-era position called the “Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense,” which was organized with additional staff within the National Security Council after the 2014 Ebola epidemic.
He implemented a “response coordinator” who will report to the president on vaccines, testing and personal protective equipment production, supply, and distribution.
Jeff Zients, who had been the director of the National Economic Council under Obama, will oversee the COVID presidential transition team as the response coordinator.
Finally, Biden is looking to rejoin the World Heatlh Organization and reestablish the US as the leader of WHO.
On Thursday, he pledged a “full-scale wartime effort” to combat the coronavirus pandemic. He said, “History is going to measure whether we are up to the task,” with Vice President Kamala Harris and Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, his chief Covid-19 medical adviser, by his side.
He rolled out a full 200-page document on Thursday calling for a “National Strategy for the Covid-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness,” wherein the new administration outlines the kind of centralized federal response that many have been demanding.
He also criticized his predecessor, saying, “For the past year we couldn’t rely on the federal government to act with the urgency and focus and coordination that we needed, and we have seen the tragic cost of that failure.”
Despite the strongly worded plan, critics say that the plan is in some respect “overly optimistic” but at other times “not ambitious enough.”
For example, the 100 million vaccines in 100 days is aiming rather low, that’s one million a day, when some have pointed out we are almost there as it is now and could probably more reasonably and ambitiously shoot for 1.5 million a day.
At this rate, we are looking at late summer for reaching a three-quarters threshold and the end of the year before we might end the pandemic.
Could we do more? Perhaps. But it also illustrates just how far behind the eight ball we put ourselves.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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