today

This wasn’t the plan.

I expected right now I would be in a plane somewhere over the Atlantic after a month in the UK visiting daughter E and her family, meeting granddaughter JG, walking granddaughter ABC home from nursery school, celebrating US Thanksgiving in London on what is there just the fourth Thursday of November.

I thought I would get to attend mass for the first time since March as we celebrated JG’s baptism, wearing the white dress that I, E, and ABC wore before her, as well her Aunt T and great-aunts.

Of course, there would have been two weeks in quarantine before any of the visiting, but still…

It was a blessing in disguise that the news of the UK lockdown leaked early, before we flew out, so that there was time to cancel. It took most of the month, but I finally got all the charges refunded.

I had planned to get a lot of writing done while we were in quarantine and to do a long-delayed, self-guided retreat, neither of which happened this month as the usual things that needed doing were before us here and the inevitable bumps in the road appeared that needed attention. I was also impossible to ignore/escape the maelstrom of news on the election and its aftermath and of the horrifying, continuing escalation of the coronavirus pandemic.

Enter the first Sunday of Advent, with its message of watching in hope.

I’m struggling with that.

By nature, I’m neither an optimist nor a pessimist. I try to be more of a realist. I know that with over 13 million confirmed cases so far and a seven-day average of new confirmed cases of about 160,000, compounded by Thanksgiving travel, the United States is going to have further acceleration in COVID cases in December and most likely into January, as well. There are also going to be spikes in hospitalizations and deaths flowing from that. Although there will likely be some vaccine administration starting in December, there won’t be enough to make much of a dent in transmission. The exception is that, if health care workers are vaccinated first as expected, we may be able to keep our hospitals staffed well enough to meet the surge in cases this winter.

I do have hope that the incoming Biden administration will have staff and appointees who are capable of improving the lives of people here and beginning to repair our international relationships. However, I am disheartened by the efforts of the current administration to undermine the chances that Biden’s team can implement changes quickly and easily. There are a number of last-minute rule changes, treaty withdrawals, troop withdrawals, and other measures that will make the transition even more difficult than anticipated in this time of public health emergency, economic downturn, civil rights protests, and general distrust in government.

Sigh.

So, one foot in front of the other. Doing the best I can manage under the circumstances.

Stay tuned.

Thanksgiving 2020

The fourth Thursday of November is celebrated as Thanksgiving Day in the United States. It’s traditional to gather with family and friends for a big dinner, usually turkey with lots of side dishes.

This Thanksgiving will be quieter for many of us because of the pandemic. Cases are rising across the country and in many states are already so numerous that hospitals are running out of space for patients. Frighteningly, millions of people are not heeding the advice of public health experts and are travelling long distances and/or gathering in groups larger than ten or with people outside their household, thus increasing the danger of even higher case counts in December.

Our plan for the day is for spouse B, daughter T, and I to go to Paco’s apartment in his senior community where we will have a Zoom session with my sisters and daughter E. In that way, Paco will get to see his great-granddaughters ABC and JG who will be celebrating American Thanksgiving on an ordinary (lockdown) Thursday in London, UK. B,T, and I were supposed to be in London with them near the end of a month-long visit until the lockdown there cancelled our trip. Once I have Paco set up with the Zoom session on this laptop, I’ll go to another room with another device so he can take his mask off.

After our video chat, Thanksgiving dinner will be delivered to the apartment and we will eat with Paco on one side of the room and B, T, and me on the other as we will need to take our masks off to eat. We will leave expeditiously after dinner so as to limit our contact time.

It won’t be the usual Thanksgiving, but it will be special in its own way.

The point of the holiday is to give thanks but the gratitude this year is tinged with sorrow and regret. I am very grateful that our family is weathering this very disrupted year. B is able to work from home and we are able to stay safe at home for the most part. We certainly miss being able to visit Paco every day and are sad to not be able to travel to the UK to visit for all of 2020, but it would be so horrifying and dangerous to have inadvertently exposed someone to COVID that the separation is necessary.

I am grateful for Governor Cuomo and all the medical personnel and other essential workers who have worked so hard to keep as many of us safe and well as possible. At the same time, I mourn the millions of people in the US and around the world who have been impacted by the coronavirus, either by illness or death of themselves or a loved one or loss of work, shelter, food security, medical care, etc. I am also dreading the coming weeks, which are projected to see a steep rise in cases on top of already soaring rates in the US. There have already been over 12.8 million confirmed cases and 261,000 deaths and the thought of millions more is overwhelming.

I am grateful that the Biden /Harris administration is starting to take shape with the announcement of well-qualified people to key posts. At the same time, I’m sad to see so many not accepting the facts of the situation and not being willing to join in the efforts to come together to fight the pandemic, revive our communities, and unite as one nation.

I’m grateful for the ideals of our country but sad that we are so far from embodying them.

I feel similarly about the Catholic church. I’m grateful for the moral grounding, social doctrine, integral ecology principles, and primacy of love that it has taught me, but sorrowful and penitent about the many abuses of power done in its name, including war, torture, colonialism, racism, sexism, clericalism, sexual abuse and cover-up, and oppression of other religions and peoples over centuries.

So, yes, a very different Thanksgiving. With widespread vaccine use possible by November 2021, maybe next year will be more “normal.”

Or, maybe, there will be no going back to what used to be considered normal.

I pray that we can finally build institutions that live up to their high ideals for the good of all creation.

the Moderna vaccine

Today, Moderna announced that their early data indicate their coronavirus vaccine is 94.5% effective. This follows the announcement last week from Pfizer/BioNTech that their vaccine, with which I and two members of my family are participating in the phase III clinical trial, is over 90% effective in the immediate time period after the second immunization.

Like the Pfizer vaccine, Moderna’s is a messenger RNA vaccine. The caveats that I wrote about here apply, but there is now hope that there will be two effective vaccines approved for emergency use in the United States before the end of the year. I’m sure the companies are also pursuing approval in other countries, as well.

Unlike Pfizer, Moderna accepted US government funds for the development of their vaccine. Like Pfizer, the US government also pre-ordered 100 million doses from Moderna. Initially, priority will be given to health care workers and other front-line occupations, expanding to highest risk people. Availability, pending full approval, for the general public will not be until spring 2021.

The Moderna vaccine will be easier to distribute than the Pfizer one because it can be kept for up to a month in a refrigerator. The Pfizer vaccine currently needs a super-cold freezer or dry ice for transport and storage.

Having two good candidates that might be available for the most vulnerable this winter is great news. I’m hoping that more of the vaccines currently in Phase III trials will also be shown safe and effective in the coming weeks. The more vaccines we can make available, in the US and around the world, the better, so we can get the pandemic under control globally.

Meanwhile, Pfizer, Moderna, and other companies need to continue their trials, following everyone who received the vaccine for the coming months to watch for how effective the vaccine is over time, if it protects some people better than others, e.g. seniors or children, and how much it might reduce symptoms in vaccinated people who do become sick with COVID versus unvaccinated. It’s possible that the placebo group may be released early from the studies when the vaccine is fully approved for ethical reasons. The companies may very well ask those participants if they would like to join the study as a second set of vaccinated subjects, doubling the amount of data on vaccine efficacy over time.

So, more good news today, but we have to keep in mind that masks, distancing, restrictions on gathering, etc. will need to stay in effect for months still. Until we have a large majority of the population fully vaccinated – and both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines need two doses several weeks apart – we need to stay on guard. Sadly, the United States passed 11 million cases recently and is approaching a quarter of a million deaths. We need to do better now, not let more people suffer while we wait for the vaccines to be generally available.

in the middle of a nightmare

The pandemic has been more severe in the United States than globally for months – and now things are getting worse very, very quickly.

Yesterday, there were over 159,000 new cases diagnosed, which broke a record set the day before. There are entire states that are out of intensive care beds – or hospital beds in general. In some states, hospitals have to triage patients and turn some away who would benefit from care in favor of other patients who are sicker but have a higher chance of recovery.

Some places are so short-staffed that COVID-positive staff are continuing to work if their symptoms allow.

The hospitalization rate is also a lagging indicator. If the hospitals are this stressed now, what will the situation be in two weeks, given the huge numbers of new diagnoses this week?

I’ve reached a new level of dread.

New York State, where I live, still has one of the lowest infection rates in the country. Governor Cuomo is tightening restrictions on gyms, indoor dining and gatherings, as well as further ramping up testing and contact tracing in hot spots. Unfortunately, after all these months, there is an outbreak among residents in the skilled nursing unit of my father’s senior living community, as well as a number of staff members. The health center is in a separate building from where Paco lives in an apartment, so we are hoping the virus won’t spread, but it is very worrying for all of us.

And what, you may ask, is the Trump administration doing to address the explosion of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths?

Nothing.

Vice-president Pence, who chairs the coronavirus task force, finally held a meeting this week after several weeks without doing so during the campaign. There were no new actions or recommendations after the meeting.

Meanwhile, President-elect Biden has named a first-rate committee of physicians and public health experts to set up the plan against COVID for his administration, which will begin January 20th. Unfortunately, because the Trump administration refuses to acknowledge that Biden will be taking office, the Biden task force does not have access to the current plans in development for vaccine deployment, distribution of supplies, etc., which is an appalling and dangerous state of affairs.

What is even more appalling and dangerous is that, with the situation becoming more and more dire daily, the Trump administration is making no attempt at all to save people for illness, disability, and death.

I’m finding the level of stress and dismay crushing.

People desperately need help now.

January 20th is still a long way off.

over 90%

Today, Pfizer/BioNTech announced analysis that showed over 90% effectiveness of their coronavirus vaccine, currently in Phase III clinical trials. There are over 43,000 people around the world enrolled in this study, including spouse B, daughter T, and me. My most recent post on the trial is here.

That is an extraordinarily high percentage for a vaccine; for comparison, most years, the seasonal flu vaccine is about 50% effective. Lest you think that Pfizer or BioNTech are exaggerating the data, neither company did the analysis. That was accomplished by an independent science review board.

While this is welcome news, there are some cautions involved. The number of cases of COVID among the large study group is still small; as time goes on, it’s possible that the efficacy rate might drop. Because the virus and the vaccine are so new, there is no way to know how long immunity might last. This is part of the reason that the study is set to last for two years, so more data can be collected about the long-term efficacy, longevity, and safety of the vaccine.

Besides the speed with which this vaccine was developed, the remarkable thing is that this is among the first messenger RNA vaccines to be tested in a large trial. If it is shown to be safe and effective, there are hopes that the Moderna vaccine, also currently in Phase III trials and an mRNA vaccine, may be effective as well. Additionally, there are vaccines that were developed in more traditional ways in Phase III trials. The more vaccines that are shown to be safe and effective, the more people can be vaccinated in a shorter timeframe, so that we can bring the global pandemic to an end, perhaps as early as late 2021 or early 2022.

It’s possible that Pfizer will be able to apply for emergency use authorization in the United States later in November, after there is two months of safety data from half the study participants after their second dose. This, along with manufacturing safety data and the efficacy numbers, will be considered by the Food and Drug Administration to determine if the vaccine can begin to be distributed, with full approval coming after more data is collected.

It’s worth noting that Pfizer/BioNTech have a contract to provide 100 million doses to the United States government if the vaccine is approved. Unlike some other companies, though, Pfizer and BioNTech did not take money from the US for their research and trial expenses. The contract is for $1.95 billion but the US government will distribute it free of charge.

My hope is that this and several other vaccines will be approved over the next few months so that as many people as possible can be protected as quickly as possible, starting with frontline health workers, first responders, and those most vulnerable due to age, underlying conditions, living facilities, and occupation.

We got the sad news today that there are several people in the skilled nursing unit of Paco’s senior community who have tested positive for the virus. Access to the unit had already been restricted, so there is hope that it will not spread any further, but we are all worried about those impacted.

The sooner we have vaccines – and better treatments – the better.

SoCS: unwelcome news

It’s Halloween, which is traditionally a day for “trick or treat.” This has usually been mostly treats with very few tricks, but my family is suffering from a trick this year.

My spouse B, daughter T, and I have been planning for weeks to spend the month of November in London, UK, visiting daughter E, son-in-law L, granddaughter ABC and meeting new granddaughter JG in person for the first time. We were going to need to quarantine our first two weeks there, followed by two weeks for visiting, and returning to two weeks of quarantine back here in New York State. We had re-arranged appointments, stocked freezers and refrigerators for our housesitter and for my father, made a bunch of care arrangements for him, etc. etc. etc.

And now, everything is cancelled.

The UK, which, like much of Europe, is suffering a COVID spike, is instituting a raft of new restrictions which make travelling for leisure there impossible.

We are sad not to be able to see our family. We had planned to have JG’s baptism while we were there. Not only is our trip cancelled but the baptism will also need to be postponed.

When we planned the trip months ago, the spike wasn’t expected until winter, so we had hoped to sneak in before things got bad. The reality was that summer holidays started more cases and, when people went back to school and work, the case numbers went up quickly.

Of course, here in the US, the country has never had the pandemic tamped down across the country. We are lucky to be in New York State which has been able to keep its rate pretty low compared to most of the rest of the country, but the country as a whole is suffering record numbers of illness and death.

The prospect of winter making things even worse is horrifying.

I wish I could say that we would know when in 2021 we could safely travel to London, but it is unknowable. I guess I’ll just say sometime in 2021, we’ll get there.

Will JG be crawling by then?

Or walking?

*****
Linda’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday this week is “trick.” Join us! Learn more here: https://lindaghill.com/2020/10/30/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-oct-31-2020/

Pfizer vaccine update

My spouse B, daughter T, and I are participating in the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine trial. My most recent update on our personal experience is here, but I wanted to share an open letter from Pfizer which you can find here.

President Trump has been intimating that a vaccine would be available under emergency authorization by election day November third, which has led to fears that the companies might compromise the science in order to meet that deadline. The companies, though, have been trying to reassure the public that they will adhere to sound scientific and public health principles.

The letter from Pfizer’s chairman and CEO Albert Bourla explains that there are three necessary components for vaccine approval: effectiveness, for which they expect data by the end of October; safety, for which they will have data in the third week of November; and manufacturing data to ensure consistent quality. If there are good results confirmed by outside experts, Bourla believes that Pfizer will be able to apply for emergency use authorization from the United States Food and Drug Administration shortly after the safety data are available in the third week of November.

Even if the emergency and final authorization is approved, Pfizer will continue its study for two years in order to monitor safety and longevity of effectiveness.

I appreciate Pfizer’s transparency of their process and truly hope that their vaccine will be shown to be safe and effective so that we can begin to protect first our most vulnerable and eventually everyone from COVID-19. I also hope that lots of other companies in the US and around the world will also produce safe and effective vaccines so we can end the pandemic as soon as possible.

looking for antibodies

Last week, B, T, and I had our third visit in the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine trial.

The main purpose of the visit was to draw blood to analyze for the presence of antibodies and other factors involved in viral immunity. Because the study is placebo-controlled and blinded, neither we nor the researchers will know our individual results, but the data will be important in determining how quickly and how well the vaccine works.

Our next appointments aren’t until March when more blood work will be done to check on antibody levels again and to see if they have remained and/or declined. In the meantime, we will continue to check in weekly through a phone app which asks about possible COVID symptoms. We will also contact the office if any of us develop symptoms that could be COVID, so that we can be tested.

The Pfizer phase III trial data will be evaluated when a certain number of COVID cases develop among the participants. When these case benchmarks are reached, the researchers will be able to determine how much protection the vaccine group exhibited compared to the placebo group. That percentage helps to determine if the vaccine will be approved.

If the vaccine is approved, Pfizer may decide to end the trail early so that the placebo group members can receive a vaccine to protect themselves. They would continue to follow the vaccine group from the trial for two years as planned, collecting data on how durable the immunity is and any side effects that might not be evident immediately.

We have also passed the window of time after the second injection in the trial when one couldn’t receive any other vaccines, so all three of us have now gotten our seasonal flu shots. We do always get flu vaccines every year, but public health experts are particularly strong in their recommendations that everyone get a flu shot this year. They are afraid of having a bad flu season on top of the coronavirus pandemic, which would make the fall and winter even more dangerous.

Please, all the Northern Hemisphere folks reading this, make arrangements to receive a flu vaccine, if you haven’t already done so.

for the archives

A few weeks ago, a poet-and-church friend who is a faithful reader of Top of JC’s Mind asked if I would like to get in touch with a friend of hers who is involved with a local historical society. Their historical society is joining with others in New York State to assemble an archive related to the pandemic. My friend thought that my posts about being in the vaccine trial might be appropriate for the archive.

It turned out that the archiving project was interested in my vaccine trials posts and any others that dealt with living in the time of COVID. I had sent the vaccine posts first. Then, I worked my way through my blog archive, copying the links to other pandemic related posts.

I knew that I wrote about the impact of COVID-19 quite a lot, but I was surprised at how long the list of posts was – fifty-six posts, from late February through September 11, in addition to the handful of vaccine ones. I joked with the archivist about it being either “an embarrassment of riches or just an embarrassment!” Since then, any time I write about our pandemic experiences I send her the link.

I had asked her how they were preserving the archive. She said that, while they do keep links on their computer, they are printing the materials for posterity. Archival technologies tend to come and go but paper lasts for a very long time.

It’s humbling to think that, decades from now, some future historian might stumble across some of my posts and be able to glean some insights about what it has been like dealing with these fraught times in our communities in upstate New York. First person contemporaneous accounts are highly sought sources for historians and documentarians and I would be honored if my posts are able to assist someone with their research some-year in the future.

scatter-brained

I’ve been wanting to write a post for several days, but have felt too scattered to do it.

I’m still feeling too scattered, but am determined to do it now regardless, ignoring the fact that I have unread email messages going back to Sunday, although I think I’ve caught all the important ones, and a long to-do list of other tasks.

Our national drama and the pandemic continue to demand an outsize share of my thoughts. The president’s behavior and rhetoric are increasingly bizarre, possibly as a result of the high-dose steroids he is taking for COVID. There are over two dozen known cases among White House and campaign personnel and cases and quarantine of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, our highest ranking military officers. The president is planning to resume public campaigning, even though he is most likely still infectious. The medical information that has been released publicly is at best incomplete and at worst misleading.

Yesterday, arrests were made as a result of a plot to kidnap and possibly kill Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer. I’m grateful that the governor and her family are safe but appalled that a self-styled right-wing militia was planning such a horrible attack. Gov. Whitmer, like many other governors around the country, has enacted executive orders to address the pandemic. She has been vilified by protesters, some of whom were armed, Republican legislators, and the president. She has been publicly threatened with violence and been subjected to sexist slurs. Still, it was shocking to learn that there was a serious plot to kidnap her and “try her for treason” before the November election. Instead of expressing support for her yesterday after the news broke, the president tweeted criticism of her and her policies, along with mischaracterizations of her and other Democrats.

In local COVID news, there has been an uptick in cases here in Broome County and we are officially on yellow alert, which sets lower limits on gatherings and increased testing for schools. Our county executive had already asked residents to stay at home as much as possible, so there isn’t much additional impact on daily life, but the official recognition by New York State has reminded me to be even more cautious with outings.

I am also getting increasingly anxious about our upcoming trip to the UK to visit daughter E and her family. The UK has also had an increasing number of COVID cases recently and has tightened restrictions. B, T and I are going for the month of November because we will need to quarantine for the first two weeks. Then, we will have two weeks to visit, although it’s unclear if we will be able to all congregate at their home as gatherings of more than six are prohibited. We are also hoping to celebrate JG’s baptism, but aren’t sure how many will be allowed to attend. After we return home to New York, we will need to quarantine for two weeks, bringing us to mid-December. The airline has already changed our flights once and I’m hoping that no additional travel restrictions go into effect this month.

Part of what is stressing me out is trying to plan and prepare for six weeks of travel and quarantine. Besides B, T, and me, I need to have plans in place for Paco and for the house, where my sisters and brother-in-law in various constellations will be holding down the fort in our absence. This is turning into a major re-jiggering and re-stocking effort indoors, while a long-awaited landscaping project has been going on outdoors.

Meanwhile, in my continuing quest to catch up with personal preventive health measures, I had a COVID test this morning in advance of a colonoscopy next week. Because of some pre-existing conditions, my prep is a bit more complicated than for most people, so I’m hoping I can get through it with a minimum of repercussions. Maybe I’ll write a post next week while I’m waiting for the remnants of the sedation and medications to wear off. That could be, um, interesting?

On the poetry front, I got another chapbook rejection. It was a debut chapbook competition that had drawn over 200 entries, a detail I’m including as it gives people an idea of the odds, and this contest was relatively small. On the unexpectedly happy news side, I received notification of acceptance to an anthology called Lullabies and Confessions: Poetic Explorations of Parenting Across the Lifespan from University Professors Press. I had submitted to the anthology over four years ago and had assumed my poem had been rejected although I hadn’t gotten an email about it, but the project had instead been delayed and my poem will be included. Publication is expected in print and ebook early next year.

I’m still feeling scattered, as though there is something else I’m supposed to be saying, but I want to get this out. Stay safe and be well!