vaccines vs. variants

Right now, the United States is a place of both hope and fear regarding COVID-19.

The hope comes from the increased pace and availability of vaccine distribution. The two-shot regimens from Pfizer and Moderna and the single-shot Johnson & Johnson have all been approved for emergency use and are being distributed as quickly as possible. There have been over three million shots given daily in recent days. It’s possible that a fourth vaccine, a two-shot course from AstraZeneca may also receive emergency use authorization in the coming weeks. Approximately 29% of adults in the US have received at least one vaccine dose. While most states concentrated first on the older demographic and health care workers, eligibility has expanded to include medically vulnerable adults and middle-aged adults. In some states, the eligibility age has or will soon drop to 16 where Pfizer vaccine is available or 18 with the other two vaccines. Trials are underway to determine the appropriate dosages for younger children. New data have shown that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are 90% effective at preventing infection in real-world application; this expands the information from the trials which looked for COVID symptoms and could have missed asymptomatic infections.

There are problems looming, though. A significant proportion of adults say that they will not be vaccinated at all. There is also a political divide in evidence. A recent survey showed that 49% of Republican men are refusing the vaccine. It will be very difficult to halt community spread if so many millions of people remain unvaccinated.

This vulnerability is in addition to the fact that too many places have relaxed their rules about wearing masks, the size of public gatherings, and capacity of indoor venues. Travel within the US has skyrocketed, including air travel. Many college students have gone on spring break trips to warmer states and gathered in large crowds without masks. The majority of states are seeing their COVID cases rise. Yesterday, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that she felt a sense of “impending doom” because cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are rising as restrictions have been lifted. She and other health experts fear that the US is at risk for a fourth surge. The protection of the vaccines won’t be able to keep pace with the virus spread by people not observing public health guidance on precautions.

There is also the problem of more infectious variants. The B1.1.7 variant is spreading rapidly in some regions and there is a separate variant that has been identified in the New York City area. While the current vaccines seem to be doing a good job preventing these variants, it will still be harder to stop community spread with the more infectious variants in circulation.

I urge everyone to get vaccinated as doses become available for their age group in their localities. Because spouse B, daughter T, and I all participated in the Pfizer/BioNTech Phase III trials, we are fully vaccinated, B and T last August during the blinded phase of the study and myself in February when the placebo group was offered the vaccine to join the study group on long-term efficacy. (There are numerous posts about our experiences with the vaccine trial if you type Pfizer in my blog search box.)

I appreciate the things that are easier to do now that I am vaccinated. The most important thing is that I am much less worried when I visit my 96-year-old father, know here as Paco. Paco is also fully vaccinated and, while I still follow the protocols to mask and distance, I am now allowed to visit inside his apartment in assisted living.

I took an unmasked walk outdoors with a friend. I have been able to do some health care visits in person rather than virtually. I go to the grocery store with just one mask instead of two. I went to mass in person for the first time in a year and have reserved a place to attend Easter Vigil Saturday evening. My fully vaccinated sister stayed overnight at our house where we could safely be together maskless.

She and I even ate at an indoor restaurant for lunch, masked when we were not eating. The restaurant had good table spacing; our region currently allows 75% capacity at restaurants and our community transmission rate is low. In general, we usually still order carryout, but I think in a few months we may be more comfortable with dining in on a more regular basis. One of the good things about living in New York State is that we have generally been cautious about public health measures and the extent to which certain activities are allowed. Extensive testing is being done so that, if the number of cases begins to rise, they can react quickly to dial back on activities to keep the outbreak from getting worse. Having seen this measured, data-driven approach work in New York, I am that much more worried when I see other places abandon mask mandates and capacity restrictions precipitously. It not only hurts their own residents but also people in other locations because travelers can bring the virus home with them.

I don’t know yet when I will be comfortable resuming travel. If we can continue robust vaccine distribution and infection rates are low, maybe B and I will be able to take a short trip together for our anniversary in June. I had hoped to return to North Adams for another private writing retreat this spring, but I need to see what happens with vaccine distribution and transmission rates over the next few weeks to decide if that would be wise.

Of course, the big prize will be when we can go to the UK to visit daughter E, son-in-law L, and granddaughter ABC and finally get to meet granddaughter JG in person. We are hoping it will be on or before her first birthday in August, but it is impossible to plan. While the UK has also been on a vigorous push for vaccine distribution and re-opening, E and L haven’t been eligible for vaccination yet and what the rules will be for summer visitors from the US is a mystery.

Still, we are closer to being able to go than we have been before and we have also built up our own capacity for patience. Love, care, and concern for others are great motivators to remain cautious and vigilant until the pandemic is truly over.

One-Liner Wednesday: RIP, Heroes

Rest in peace, Officer Brian Sicknick and Captain Sir Tom Moore.

Please join us for Linda’s One-Liner Wednesdays! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2021/02/03/one-liner-wednesday-is-time-ever-wasted/

progress for Pfizer

Today is an important day for the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine.

In the United Kingdom, the first doses are being given, predominantly to those over the age of eighty. The recipients will need a second dose in three weeks.

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration has published a 53-page review of the Pfizer/BioNTech data and confirmed the findings of safety and 95% efficacy. This clears the way for a public hearing on Thursday and possible emergency use authorization within days. Distribution will start within 24 hours of approval.

It is good that so much of the data is now public because you can see that the vaccine is safe and effective across different age, racial, and comorbidity groups. There is also evidence that some protection develops from the first of the two doses, although the highest level of protection begins about a week after the second dose.

As a Pfizer trial participant, I expect to hear back from the researchers shortly after the approval goes through. Pfizer plans to offer the vaccine to people in the placebo group in order to continue their long-term study on efficacy and safety. Among our family in the study, we expect that we have two who have already received two doses of the vaccine and one who is in the placebo group.

I can assure you that the suspected placebo person is anxious to join the vaccine group as soon as possible!

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/

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!

Ocean and Snowman

This evening, while watching television, I happened to see the last part of the movie Moana followed by the beginning of Frozen.

When daughter E and granddaughter ABC lived with us before E’s spousal visa came through for their big move to London, ABC, at two, was just starting to be entranced with watching (parts of) movies. These were two of her favorites, which she called “Ocean” and “Snowman”.

Both movies celebrate love of family, intergenerationally in Moana and between sisters in Frozen. Seeing them tonight reminds me of how desperately I miss seeing E and ABC and how much I want to meet new granddaughter JG.

When E and ABC left for London almost a year ago, we had assumed that we would be able to visit several times a year. My spouse B, younger daughter T, and I did visit in December. (There are posts about the trip that you can find in the archive in late January into March. It took a long time to get the posts together.) We had hoped to visit again in the spring and then in the summer when the baby was due to arrive, but COVID intervened, so we haven’t seen them yet in 2020, other than on screen.

Most days, I can manage the distance, but, tonight, I could hear the echoes of ABC asking for Ocean or singing about building a snowman and I’m sad.

We do have a visit planned in November, beginning with two weeks in quarantine to be followed by two weeks for visiting under whatever the current UK restrictions are for group size. We are hoping that JG’s baptism will be able to take place while we are there.

Plans are in place, but I’m nervous that travel protocols might change and keep us from seeing them. Meanwhile, we are hoping that people in the US and the UK will be careful about following pandemic control measures so that virus rates stay down and our visit can go forward.

And, people in other countries, I hope you will stay safe, too.

the later verses

For some reason, yesterday the topic of the later verses of songs to which many know only the first verse well came up a couple of times. In a Binghamton Poetry Project session, we read Ada Limón’s poem “A New National Anthem” which quotes from and asks why we don’t sing the third verse of the “Star-Spangled Banner”. Last night, I was discussing the hymn “Amazing Grace” with a friend; I relate much better theologically with the ending verses than the opening ones, which are the ones most people recognize.

Although I am Catholic, much of my training as an organist was in a Protestant context. Unlike most Catholic churches, which often sing only two or three verses of a hymn, Protestant churches usually sing all the verses, which, as a poet and a liturgist, I find more proper. I sometimes choose a hymn specifically for a message in a later verse. I did this in choosing hymns for my father-in-law’s funeral, only to have the substitute organist truncate the hymn so we never got to verses that were connected to the occasion. I noticed the pastor giving a sidelong glance at the organist, but he didn’t take the hint.

Some of my favorite verses of hymns are later ones. In Katharine Lee Bates’ “America the Beautiful”, I especially like the end of the second verse/stanza: 
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!
We could really use some of that self-control these days. Interestingly, in researching the poem, I found that the version most of us know is the 1911 revision. The original 1893 version ends the third stanza with:
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee
Till selfish gain no longer stain,
The banner of the free!
We could really use that message now, too.

Sometimes, later verses are just fun because you get to sing words that your would not otherwise. For example, the second verse of the standard version of the United Kingdom National Anthem “God Save the Queen” which deals with the Queen’s enemies contains the lines “Confound their politics, Frustrate their knavish tricks”. It’s not often one gets to sing about “knavish tricks”!

Sometimes, especially in folk/protest songs, verses are included, excluded, or altered due to political circumstances or the audience. Woodie Guthrie’s original lyric of “The Land Is Your Land” contains a verse about private property and ends with a verse about hunger that closes “As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if this land was made for you and me.” Most people are familiar only with the verses that are a US travelogue, not these more challenging ones.

There are some hymns, such as “Sing a New Church” by Delores Dufner, OSB, that I love all the verses so much that I will sing omitted verses to myself if we don’t get to sing them all during the service.

My first college choral conductor, Rob Kolb, taught us that the hymn is the poem which is the text, as opposed to the tune, which is interchangeable with another of the same metric form. Because the hymn is the poem, you sing it as you would recite it, with its punctuation and word emphasis intact. You also honor the hymn as an entity, so you sing all the verses, as you would read or recite all the stanzas of a poem.

Some lessons stick with you for life.

today’s changes

When I wrote about covid-19 over the weekend, I assumed that things would continue to change.

I was correct.

Today, I learned the following:

  1. While visitors are still allowed in Paco’s independent living apartment building, they are no longer allowed in public areas, including the dining room. This means that our usual Sunday morning breakfast together won’t be possible, unless we order ahead and Paco goes to pick it up from the dining room.
  2. My hopes that the panic buying for groceries, medications, and household goods was just for Friday and over the weekend were dashed. It took three stores today to find a short list of items that Paco or my household needed. None of it was hoarding or earth-shatteringly necessary, but it was so strange to still see entire categories of foods unavailable.
  3. Stores are adjusting to the circumstances as best they can. Wegmans, where I usually do most of my shopping, has instituted limits on certain items, hoping to keep staples available for as much of the day as they can. They are usually open 24 hours a day, but are now closing between midnight and 6 AM to allow for more extensive re-stocking. Even with that, there was almost no fresh meat this morning and there were signs up saying they wouldn’t be getting a shipment until tomorrow afternoon.
  4. People must rely a lot on peanut butter, because it is very hard to find.
  5. France is reporting that over-the-counter anti-inflammatories may worsen covid-19 symptoms. They recommend other fever-reducing medications, such as acetaminophen.
  6. Starting at 8 PM today, all restaurants in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut will be open only for takeout and delivery. Also, the new definition of allowable gathering size is 50. This will effectively close lots of businesses and organizations.
  7. Many of the closures are scheduled until end of March or mid-April, but many of us assume they will go on longer.
  8. I had thought that the United States national government had the most haphazard response to covid-19, but it appears the United Kingdom is also in the running for this dubious distinction. Because my daughter and her family are in London, we often exchange news. The UK is not even using social distancing as a strategy for the population at large. It’s mind-boggling and scary. [Update:  Right after I published this post, my daughter sent me a link showing that someone finally got through to Boris Johnson that he needs to change his strategy for the UK.]

Who knows what tomorrow will bring?

(I will try to make my next post be about something cheerier.)

political parallels?

We were in London when the United Kingdom had their election in December, so we saw some of the television coverage of it.

As we know, the Tories (Conservatives) won, Boris Johnson retains his post as prime minister, and, at midnight tonight Brussels time, the UK will officially leave the European Union, a process shorthanded as Brexit.

Right after the election, some pundits who were looking at this as possibly predictive of the upcoming United States elections later this year, posited that the lesson learned was that you can’t have a very liberal person representing the opposing political party.

That was not my takeaway from the situation. I was, instead, stuck by the parallels between UK and US politics, despite the differences in our governmental systems.

First, you have a similar urban/rural divide. In the US, the Democrats are stronger in urban areas and are represented by blue on electoral maps. The Republicans are stronger in rural areas and states and are represented by red. In the UK, the divide between Labor and Tories is similar, but the map colors are reversed.

Of course, the electoral map in the UK is much more complicated as there are more parties involved, such as the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalists. There is a real danger that Scotland and Northern Ireland, who do not want to leave the European Union, may in the future vote to leave the United Kingdom. The United States is not about to break apart depending on the outcome of elections.

Another similarity is that the pivotal elections that brought us to this point were influenced by the Russians. Both the Brexit vote four years ago and the 2016 presidential election won by Trump are known to have suffered interference by Russian operatives. A number of GRU officers have been indicted in the United States for their election interference. (The GRU is the main intelligence agency in Russia.) Both the Brexit vote and the 2016 presidential election were close votes. There is no way to quantify the influence of the foreign interference, but it does call into question, in such close votes, if foreign interference tipped the scales.

Both the UK Tories and the US Republicans are historically conservative parties. They had certain principles that they held for decades. They have both turned away from those principles to follow an unconventional leader. In the US, this is sometimes referred to as a “cult of personality.” Any party member who disagrees with the leader is either badgered into falling back in the party line or leaving the party or not running for reelection.

I was also struck by how often Johnson and Trump are called out for lying. This is very distressing. In the US, it has led to some people denying facts in order to believe the lies. Some people even contend that there are no such things as facts or truth. This is dangerous, not only in politics but also in other topics. “Believing” something does not make facts disappear.

No one knows what will happen next in either nation. The UK leaves the European Union tonight, but there are no permanent plans in place for what that looks like. As I write this, I’m listening to the arguments for and against subpoenaing witnesses and documents in Trump’s impeachment trial. Even though most people think they know how the trial will turn out, no one knows what additional facts will surface and how the public will react.

Uncertainty seems the only constant.
*****
Today is the last day of Linda’s Just Jot It January. We hope you have enjoyed it – and joined in if you wanted! You can find out more about Just Jot It January here:  https://lindaghill.com/2020/01/31/daily-prompt-jusjojan-the-31st-2020/
Remember that Linda’s One-Liner Wednesday and Stream of Consciousness Saturday are ongoing. You can learn all about those on Linda’s blog, too. Thanks, Linda, for joining us all together for so much fun!

on both sides of the pond

This is a politically eventful week for both the US and the UK.

I just finished reading the articles of impeachment against Donald Trump. I was a bit surprised that there are only two, given that there is also a body of evidence to support obstruction of justice regarding the 2016 election interference investigation and an emoluments case. The emoluments case is wending its way through the judicial system. The obstruction of justice cases could be brought under a different attorney general at any point within the five year statute of limitations. The thinking of the House Judiciary Committee majority seems to be to keep the articles narrowly focused to be able to present a more concentrated set of facts for the impeachment vote in the House, which is like an indictment, and for the trial in the Senate. The second article of impeachment is obstruction of Congress. Given that this is ongoing. blatant, and unprecedented in scope – and clearly a breach of Constitutional separation of powers – it is going to look as though senators who vote against that article are not taking their own Constitutional role as jurors seriously.

Meanwhile, in the UK, where I happen to be at the moment visiting family, the airwaves are filled with news of the UK Parliamentary election, which could well determine if and how the exit of the UK from the European Union happens. It is a mess, given that Russia also interfered in the Brexit vote, so it is not necessarily reflective of the will of the people. It is even more complicated in that the United Kingdom might itself break apart in the aftermath of leaving the EU. Scotland and Northern Ireland, and even Wales, could well vote to succeed, leaving England on its own and no United Kingdom at all.

I know I keep saying “Yikes!” in my posts, but it bears repeating.

Yikes!