In a world turned upside down by the pandemic, we're following a lot of different threads: vaccine news, data graphics, infection hot spots, distribution issues, you name it. But… how are we doing, really? It's hard to get an accurate sense of how the pandemic is going.
At the close of 2020, says Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Dean Michelle Williams, we are at an inflection point. At a presentation called “COVID-19: Chasing Science to Save Lives,” she discussed the current opportunities and challenges brought by the vaccination campaigns that are just around the corner.
Williams says that on the plus side, news of vaccines really is promising. The mRNA technology has brought forth a whole new class of vaccines that are safe and quick to develop. But on the flip side, the pandemic is hitting a new spike and daily news is as bad as ever.
With all this news, one also can see how people can easily become numb.
Numbness is actually a major enemy in this pandemic. All across the country, we see footage of people in malls and at birthday parties, congregating without masks, without physical distancing, and with growing disinterest towards the pandemic.
“Is numbness the way we are coping?” she asked. It may very well be.
Resistance to science endangers all of us
What's more, Williams (like all of us) has grappled with the fact that some of our leaders were so unwilling to follow the science. She said resistance to science was a clear and present danger to all of us.
The other danger is vaccine hesitancy. She referred to a Pew survey, where about 20 % of Americans said they were pretty certain that they would never take the vaccine no matter what new information they learned about it.
There are two main actors in this pandemic drama: scientists trying to find answers and the public who are free to accept or rebuff the answers. Scientists and the public need to work together. “We can’t work in silos,” she said. Establishing a good communication structure is even more important as this isn't the first nor the last pandemic to pose a threat to mankind. “What we do means a lot to all the future global threats ahead of us.”
Williams also mentions what Napoleon famously said to his valet ahead of one battle. He said to dress him slowly because he was in a hurry. Sometimes, slowing down and assimilating things is the fastest way to protect ourselves and our loved ones. “We cannot afford to go numb.”
Some degree of normality
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was part of the presentation and he spoke of ways to get out of the pandemic. He said not getting vaccinated should not turn out to be the missing link in achieving success.
“What percentage of people in our society are going to be willing to be vaccinated? If we have a 95% effective vaccine and only 40 to 50% of people in society get vaccinated, it’s going to take quite a while to get to that blanket of herd immunity that’s going to protect us enough that you and I would feel comfortable in going out into society and saying the level of virus is so low that its not a threat to anyone.”
Fauci believes if vaccinations are done efficiently enough over the second quarter of 2021, “by the time we get to the end of the summer, i.e., the third quarter, we may actually have enough herd immunity protecting our society that, as we get to the end of 2021, we can approach very much some degree of normality that is close to where we were before.”
A recent webinar featuring scientists in epidemiology had similarly commented that a hurdle to success would be vaccine hesitancy. The view was that if the vulnerable among the elderly and other communities refused to take vaccines when available, the battle to eradicate Covid-19 would not go far.
Barry Bloom, research professor of public health and former dean of the faculty, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, moderated. “Let me just say there’s a mantra,” said Bloom, among immunologists and vaccine people that “vaccines do not save lives. Vaccination does.”