SoCS: more on covid and vaccines

Here in the US, we are facing another wave of COVID. I think it is considered our fourth wave, but that has become pretty hard to define over the many months of the pandemic. What is different this time is that this wave is almost exclusively confined to the unvaccinated population, at least in terms of serious illness, hospitalizations, and mortality.

In New York State, where I live, the Northeast in general, and a few other states with high vaccination rates, you are seeing case numbers climb somewhat, largely because the delta variant is causing more breakthrough infections among the vaccinated, but you aren’t seeing extreme impacts on hospitals being overwhelmed and lots of serious illness and deaths.

In states like Missouri and Mississippi, with low vaccination rates, we are seeing conditions that look like the early days of the pandemic in New York, with hospitals overflowing with very sick patients, more than they have space, equipment, and personnel to handle. While in the first-wave, most of the very ill were elderly, now we are seeing that most of the very ill are younger adults. Even in these low-vaccination-rate states, the elderly are the ones most likely to have been vaccinated, so they are less impacted by this current wave, even with the delta variant making up a larger and larger share of infections.

As people who read Top of JC’s Mind from time to time may recall, I, spouse B, and daughter T are all part of the Phase III trial of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. B and T both were in the original vaccine group and were vaccinated last August. They are now both enrolled in the follow-on study of booster shots and their efficacy. Like the original study, it is double-blind, so neither the participants nor the researchers know who received the actual booster and who received the placebo injection.

However, B and T are both having side effects similar to their other doses of the vaccine, so we are pretty sure that they got real booster shots, not placebos. For the record, last August, I got placebo shots. When the study was unmasked after the emergency use authorization was approved, I was offered the real vaccine, which I got in February. I remain in the study as part of the design to follow participants for at least two years. I don’t know if I might, in the future, wind up participating in a follow-on study for boosters as well. It will depend on how the results of the booster study that B and T are now in play out and whether more data is needed. It’s also possible that Pfizer may re-formulate in response to current and future variants and need a pool of test subjects for that. My family will continue to participate as long as we can be of use to help advance the science and protect public health.

It is so very sad to know how many people are suffering from COVID, especially now that we do have good vaccines available. I’m sad for people in countries or regions that don’t have access to the vaccine. I’m upset that there are so many who do have access but still remain unvaccinated, often because of misinformation about COVID and about the vaccines. Choosing to remain unvaccinated doesn’t just impact the individual’s health if they get infected. It also impacts public health, giving the virus more opportunities to mutate and create new variants. It also can spread the virus to others, which is especially dangerous if those people are also unvaccinated. Sadly, we are seeing an increase in hospitalizations of children, who aren’t yet eligible for vaccination, and teens, who are eligible but still have low vaccination rates in many states. Earlier this week, the state of Tennessee announced that it is ending all vaccine outreach to teens. It would be bad enough if this was just COVID vaccine but they are also ending outreach for other vaccines, like TDaP, HPV, hepatitis, and MMR boosters.

It’s appalling.

Please, everyone, remember that we are still in a pandemic – and will be until we can get COVID under control globally. If you have access to vaccines, please take them for your own good and for the good of others. Everyone needs to be vigilant to following public health and infection prevention measures recommended by public health professionals in your region.

COVID doesn’t care about your political views or whether or not you believe it exists. It is a virus that is just looking for a host to make it possible for it to replicate as many copies of itself as possible. If you are infected, you might be lucky and have mild symptoms, but you could pass it on to someone who might become seriously ill or even die. Or you might be unlucky and become seriously ill or die yourself.

The virus won’t care.

Your loved ones will.

*****
Linda’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday this week was to base your post on your least favorite word. I don’t often think of having a favorite or least favorite word, but I thought that COVID definitely qualified as being my least favorite entity at the moment. If you’d like to join in with SoCS, you can find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2021/07/16/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-july-17-2021/

Vaccinated and (mostly) unmasked

Shortly after I wrote this post, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published new guidance regarding mask wearing/distancing among fully vaccinated people in response to newly published research findings.

The good news is that fully vaccinated people can stop wearing masks indoors with extremely low risk of contracting or spreading coronavirus. Mask wearing is still recommended in medical settings such as hospitals. Requirements to mask on public transport remain in effect, as do any mandates or policies put in place by state/local governments and businesses.

The bad news is that people who are not fully vaccinated might also stop wearing masks – and wouldn’t stand out because others would just assume if they weren’t wearing a mask that they were vaccinated – and so could be exposing themselves and their contacts to coronavirus, which would drive up infection rates. This is not helped by states that have already dropped their mask mandates or never had them in the first place.

Some governors immediately dropped their mask mandates while others, such as Governor Cuomo of New York where I live, are reviewing the situation before making any changes.

Personally, I expect that I, though vaccinated, will not be making many changes in my mask behavior immediately. The few stores that I frequent are likely to keep their mask policies in place for now. Visiting my father in the health care building of his senior community will probably still require masking because, although they are vaccinated, the residents are still vulnerable due to their age and underlying health problems. If the state does drop the mask mandate, small businesses, such as hair salons and restaurants, may decide to let vaccinated customers unmask and could easily ask for proof of vaccination to give peace of mind to their employees and customers.

I am frustrated by the media commentary surrounding this CDC announcement. For weeks, commentators have been complaining that the CDC was too slow in changing its recommendations for vaccinated people and that it was a disincentive to get vaccinated. The CDC was waiting for additional scientific findings to be published before making changes, but, now that they have, the commentators are complaining that it happened too fast.

They are also complaining that the CDC guidance is confusing. It’s not. It is meant for use on an individual level and it’s very clear about what activities fully vaccinated individuals can do without masking/distancing and what activities unvaccinated people can do without masking/distancing. The CDC and the federal government are not the ones with authority to require masks in stores, churches, etc. State and local governments and businesses do that.

So, please, everyone, stop whining, learn about the recommendations from the CDC and the policies in place in your local area, and behave accordingly for the safety of yourself and others.

If you are eligible for vaccination but haven’t done it yet, make arrangements to do so as soon as possible so you don’t become seriously ill or pass the virus on to someone else.

Remember to be kind and respectful to others. Some vaccinated people will choose to continue wearing masks because they are immunocompromised and more susceptible. I know people with allergies who are continuing to mask outdoors to protect themselves from high pollen counts. Some parents of children who are too young to be vaccinated wear their masks to be a good example for their children. It is not your business to criticize someone else’s decision and masking is never a wrong choice when it comes to public health. In some countries, masks have been common for years, especially during flu season or when there are air quality problems.

The CDC recommendations rely on public trust. Unvaccinated people need to demonstrate that they are worthy of trust by following the public health guidance. Overall infection and death rates are down, but they will spike again if people don’t continue to vaccinate and mask/distance until they complete the vaccine process. A spike might not happen until colder weather drives more people indoors, but it won’t happen at all if we can get the vast majority of teens and adults vaccinated by fall.

The prospect of the epidemic phase of COVID-19 being over by fall is within reach, but only if people follow this guidance and get vaccinated.

Let’s do it!

Another Pfizer vaccine advance

Yesterday, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19 was granted emergency use authorization for children aged 12-15, extending the prior age range of 16+. These younger teens can receive the same dosage as older teens with similar effect. This is good news because all high school and most middle school students should be able to be protected before schools open in August or September 2021.

Pfizer and other vaccine suppliers are currently studying the proper dosage for younger children. These eventual approvals will probably be split into several groups, 5-11-year-olds, 2-4, and 6-23 months. The research with these younger children takes longer because they have to start with lower doses and increase to find the lowest possible dose that will still mount a strong immune response. Until these children can be vaccine protected, they need for all the teens and adults to get vaccinated to reduce their chances of being exposed. While young children tend to be less sick than adults if they get infected, they can become very ill, even fatally, and suffer long-term symptoms. Even if they have mild or no symptoms, they also keep the community spread of the virus going, which means that the pandemic phase cannot end.

Canada gave authorization for 12-15 for the Pfizer vaccine last week. It’s expected that Moderna will be doing so soon. Pfizer has also applied for full authorization in the US, a process that will take several months to complete. I am especially pleased with the success of the Pfizer vaccine because data from spouse B and daughter T are part of the research findings that are showing how safe and effective the vaccine is. Monitoring for them continues to see how long immunity lasts and whether boosters are needed. I also continue to participate in the trial, but, because I was originally part of the placebo group, I didn’t receive the vaccine until February so my data are not useful for the longevity factor, although I could become part of a test group for boosters in the future if warranted.

Internationally, vaccine companies are continuing their research and manufacturing, but distribution is neither fast nor broad enough. India is particularly tragic, with widespread disease, scant treatment, and, despite being a major manufacturer of pharmaceuticals and vaccines, very little vaccine protection among its residents. President Biden has joined growing calls for vaccine companies to suspend their patent protections so that countries around the world can manufacture vaccines for their regions. This would also entail making available the raw materials, supplies, and expertise to manufacture the vaccines, some of which require new techniques such as mRNA.

I feel an odd mix of hope, dread, and sorrow. The COVID rate in New York State where I live is very low now. We are gradually relaxing some of our restrictions and I am planning to go on a writing retreat later this month. This summer, we think we are finally going to be able to travel to the UK to visit daughter E and her family and get to hold our granddaughter JG for the first time, although she is almost walking on her own and may not want to stop long enough to be held by the time we can get there.

At the same time, there are still people sick and dying in my state and exponentially more in other states and countries. It’s frustrating because we have treatment tools and vaccines now that we didn’t have a year ago but they aren’t reaching all the people that need them. What’s most frustrating is people who do have access but don’t take advantage of the opportunity, letting their fear, ideology, contrariness, or sense of invincibility stand in the way of personal and public health.

Please, everyone, continue to do all that is within your power to end the pandemic. This will look different depending on personal and community circumstances, but mask in indoor public spaces, distance when appropriate, be careful about the size of gatherings, stay home if you are sick, vaccinate when it’s available for you, keep up to date on the newest public health recommendations.

Show your respect for others and do your best to protect them. Pandemics are, by definition, phenomena that affect us all. It takes all of us working together to end one.

vaccine update

Here in the United States, we are continuing to roll out coronavirus vaccines as quickly as possible, although there are a few snags.

The biggest is that the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine is on temporary pause, due to six cases of a rare blood clotting problem that have been reported among women aged 18-48 within two weeks after vaccination. Given that over six million doses have been administered, the percentage affected is tiny, but the two agencies in charge are being cautious, especially as a small number of similar cases have been reported in Europe in connection with the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, which, like the J&J, is an adenovirus-based vaccine. The pause is allowing them to gather and assess data. Additional cases may surface because of the attention this is receiving in the media. It also lets physicians know to ask about vaccine status when a patient presents with blood clot symptoms. This is important because vaccine-related blood clots call for a different treatment regimen. The hope is that the J&J vaccine will again be cleared for distribution within the next two weeks.

The public reaction has been mixed. Some people say that this pause shows how closely public health officials are tracking the various vaccines and their effects, which raises their confidence level. Others are worried that this means the vaccines weren’t sufficiently tested. A few who have received the J&J vaccine are panicking.

As someone who has been involved in vaccine trials, currently the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine but previously trials for flu, adult RSV, and pneumonia vaccines, I can attest that researchers are very careful in how they conduct trials. However, when you have a side effect that seems to appear in such a small number of people, you are unlikely to find it in a trial of thirty thousand people. If it turns out that the blood clot complication does occur, a person is more likely to be struck by lightning than to develop a blood clot after J&J vaccination. I hope this would calm anyone who is panicking, although people often fear rare events while ignoring those that are much more likely to impact them.

I admit that it boggles my mind that, with over thirty-one million known COVID cases in the US and over 565,000 deaths, people would fear an extremely rare side effect more than the virus itself. There are still about 25% of adults who say they will not get vaccinated, which raises the prospect that we won’t be able to stop community spread and end the pandemic because the pool of susceptible people will remain too large. Also, remember that some people who have been vaccinated may still be infected, but their chances of being severely ill are greatly diminished. Still, the way to end the pandemic is to have 85-90% of people vaccinated so that cases of the virus can be contained rather than spreading throughout the community.

It will help when those younger than 16 can be vaccinated. Pfizer has currently asked for permission to add 12-15-year-olds to those eligible after conducting a trial with that age group. Pfizer, Moderna, and others are also conducting research on the best dosages for younger children.

Meanwhile, research is continuing into how long immunity from the vaccine will remain strong. Spouse B and daughter T who received the Pfizer vaccine last August as part of the phase III trial are part of the effort to answer that question. The six month figures showed that immunity remained strong but they will be followed for at least two years to see how that may change with time. The Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla has said that he thinks a yearly booster is a possibility; they have begun studying this with phase I trial participants. We’ll see when B and T have their one-year follow-up in August whether or not they will have extended the booster dose study to phase III participants.

It is my sincere hope that by then we will have been able to fly to the UK to visit our family there and to meet granddaughter JG in person. While we are doing all we can to make that safely possible, it is frustrating to still see so many people not willing to cooperate with public health measures to keep themselves, their loved ones, and their communities safe using masks, distancing, limits on gatherings, vaccines, etc. to end the pandemic.

Yesterday, there was a Congressional hearing at which Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the leading health officials in the country, was testifying. Rep. Jim Jordan illustrates the dynamic that has resulted in the unfortunate and dangerous politicization of the pandemic. This is a public health issue, not a “freedom” issue. Living in a free society does not mean that everyone is free to do or say whatever they want; we each have a corresponding responsibility not to cause harm to others or damage their rights and human dignity.

This brings me to my last point. The pandemic affects the whole world. Under the prior administration, the United States suffered terrible losses and did not contain the spread of the virus. Under the Biden administration, the US is making progress and has taken some steps to help the rest of the world in the fight against COVID. The US is now part of the COVAX initiative to help distribute vaccines to lower-wealth countries, although this is just getting underway. It has also sent some of its stockpile of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has not yet been approved for emergency use in the US, to Canada and Mexico where it has been. While I expect the US to retain doses of approved vaccines as boosters, I’m hoping that once everyone who will accept the vaccine in the US has been vaccinated that we will distribute all the other doses to countries that need them, along with whatever other logistical and medical help is needed.

We can never end the pandemic until the virus has nowhere on the globe where it can run rampant. To me, this is a moral imperative. Others may be motivated by economic self-interest. Whatever the reason, it needs to happen.

New York State update

As you may recall, I post occasionally on New York State government and politics, especially as it relates to the pandemic. This has necessarily led to some reference to the investigations into Governor Cuomo. Many New York politicians of both parties have called on the governor to resign, claiming he can’t govern effectively under a cloud of suspicion, while the majority of New York voters say in public opinion polls that he should remain in office while the investigations continue.

Given Governor Cuomo’s high profile nationally, both as a leader on pandemic policy and as the chair of the National Governors Association, there has been national coverage on the allegations and investigations, although this waxes and wanes depending on what else is happening. When there is a lot of coverage of a mass shooting or trial or a major piece of federal legislation, we don’t hear about Governor Cuomo for a few days until things calm down and we are back to the question of how can he govern under these circumstances.

Meanwhile, he has been governing. There have been numerous speaking engagements at vaccination sites, especially those in high-need neighborhoods, in the continuing efforts to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible without leaving any demographic groups behind. This week, there was the announcement of a monument dedicated to essential workers who continued to serve the public while most people were encouraged to stay safe at home. Updates to COVID policies have been rolled out as data and conditions warrant.

Most significantly from the political standpoint, our state budget has passed. Unlike most states, the New York fiscal year starts April first, so the budget was a few days late being passed. While the governor’s office is heavily involved in budget process, the delay was due more to timing of the American Rescue Plan passage in Washington, which established how much federal aid was coming to New York, and to COVID, which complicated the negotiation process which usually happens in person. Unfortunately, the Speaker of the Assembly, our lower house in the legislature, tested positive for COVID during the negotiation process but continued to serve from home.

So, our state government continues to function, which is good as we are facing yet another critical time period with the pandemic. While the overall infection rate is still quite low, cases on average are rising with sizeable presence of the B.1.1.7 variant and another variant that first appeared in New York City. We are giving out the vaccine as quickly as we can get doses. Thirty-five percent of NYers have received at least one vaccine dose, with twenty-two percent fully vaccinated. That still leaves millions of people, especially younger adults, teens, and children vulnerable to infection, so we have to continue to be cautious with masking, distancing, and gathering size and conditions.

The newly passed state budget has money to help with public health efforts, in addition to rent assistance, increase education aid, and small business programs to help everyone in our pandemic recovery. It will take time and effort, but we will build back better, a phrase that Governor Cuomo was using before President Biden and that others in the environmental and social justice movement were using before the governor took it up.

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.

SoCS: the last year

I had planned to post about the pandemic anniversary today, so it was fortuitous that Linda took the occasion to have us write about our past year. She also gave us permission to edit if we chose, so this post will be only stream-of-conscious-ish. I’m hoping to only need to do light editing.

So, compared to most other people in the US, I have been fortunate over this pandemic year. My spouse B has been working from home so we didn’t take a financial hit. He and I and daughter T have been safe in our home. My state, New York, was initially hit very hard by the pandemic, although not as much so in my home region of the Southern Tier. While we did have a period of time as a local COVID “hot spot,” we followed the precautions on masking, avoiding gatherings, handwashing, etc. and stayed safe.

This is not to say that we didn’t have to make changes in our lives. T’s job search has been on indefinite hold. Grocery shopping and meal planning became a major endeavor for me, due to shortages and restrictions. Some of my poetry activities moved online, but the year hasn’t been as productive as I had hoped. The Boiler House Poets Collective annual residency at MASS MoCA was cancelled due to COVID, although I did craft my own writing retreat in North Adams in late summer which turned out to be a perfect time, given the sooner than expected fall surge. (Additional posts from that time are here and here.)

There are two big personal impacts for me as a result of the pandemic. The first is the separation from daughter E and her family, who live in London, UK. We visited in December, 2019, with plans for several 2020 trips, including a visit to meet our new grandchild, and a plan for them to visit us here in the States in December 2020. None of that happened, due to COVID. While we have been in touch virtually, we have all been largely confined to our respective homes. It’s been hard watching from a distance as they dealt with likely cases of COVID in their household at a time when there wasn’t even testing available unless one needed hospitalization. We missed granddaughter ABC’s third birthday and the birth of granddaughter JG. We missed ABC starting nursery school, which has been variously in person and virtual depending on how viciously the virus was spreading in London at any given time. JG is now seven months old and we have no idea when we will be able to visit. She may be a toddler by the time we get to meet in person.

The second personal difficulty has been trying to care for my almost-96-year-old father, known here as Paco. Before the pandemic, we visited him every day in his apartment in the independent living building of his senior community. His memory was poor, but we were able to keep him safe and on an even keel. Once the pandemic began, though, we needed to limit contact, so we reverted to handling most things by phone with screened staff handling some tasks that had to be in person. This proved to be difficult but when Paco developed a medical problem that required a few days in the hospital, it became impossible for him to be safe in his apartment. In December, he moved to the health care building, first for three weeks of rehab in the skilled unit and then permanently to the assisted living unit. This is where he needs to be at this point, but due to state COVID rules, it was very difficult to visit in person. I am happy to report, though, that yesterday and today we had our first visits to his new apartment; before that, we had to meet in the visitors room or do window visits where we spoke by phone on either side of a window. We still have to mask and distance, but we could at least organize and tidy his rooms for him.

The greatest difficulty that is more universal is the sorrow at the immense cost the pandemic has exacted. So much illness. So much death. So many without even the most basic essentials for a secure existence. So much social isolation. So many who risked their own health to meet the needs of others. In the United States, the bewildering politicization of the crisis.

As we have been commemorating this first anniversary of the pandemic, though, I am feeling hopeful. We are about seven and a half weeks into the Biden administration and vaccine distribution has seen a big boost. Although the number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths is still much too high, it is lower than it has been in months. In New York State, we are able to continue our gradual, science-and-metrics-driven increase in public activities. I went to church in person for the first time in a year today. It feels like we are making real progress toward ending the pandemic.

Real hope after a year of fear.

I’m very grateful for the vaccines and the people who are being diligent in observing public health measures. I’m grateful that B, T, and I were able to be of public service as participants in the Pfizer vaccine trial, which I’ve written about frequently here at TJCM.

I admit the fear isn’t totally gone. It’s upsetting to see people who are ignoring public health advice still. Especially with so many variants of the virus active and so many people unwilling to be vaccinated, it’s possible the virus will start to surge again.

Still, for the first time, the hope outweighs the fear in my mind.

Please, everyone, be careful. Stay safe. Protect yourself and your neighbors. We can end the pandemic after this awful year.

Together.

*****
Linda’s prompt this week was to write about our experiences over this last pandemic year, stream of consciousness style or not, or “day/week/month/year.” I chose the first option. Join us! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2021/03/12/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-march-13-2021/

more good vaccine news

An update to my last post on coronavirus vaccines in the United States:
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine did receive emergency use authorization over the weekend and is currently being distributed. Because the company had manufactured some doses in advance through Operation Warp Speed, there will be some large shipments going out followed by a lag as Johnson & Johnson ramps up their manufacturing operations.

President Biden announced on Tuesday that another large pharmaceutical company with vaccine expertise, Merck, will be helping Johnson & Johnson to manufacture its vaccine. Merck ended a couple of vaccine trials it was conducting due to ineffectiveness and will be aiding the country in manufacturing its rival’s vaccine under the Defense Production Act. This Act is also being used to increase production of other needed items, such as vials.

Unlike the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna mRNA vaccines, the J&J vaccine is a more conventional vaccine, using inactive adenovirus to carry the vaccine into the body and activate the immune system. It only requires one dose and can be stored at refrigerator temperatures, so it is much easier to distribute to more rural areas.

While President Biden had previously said that any adult who wanted to be vaccinated would be able to be by the end of July, he now expects that to be possible by the end of May. This would allow most of us to resume what we have been calling “normal life,” although I think that some changes from our old ways of doing things will probably be in evidence indefinitely.

However, there are some big ifs. The first is that individuals would need to almost universally accept the vaccine to prevent it spreading in the community and to minimize the impact of new, possibly more dangerous variants. This would need to happen in every state – and in every country, if unrestricted international travel is allowed to resume. The second is that people would need to continue masking, distancing, limiting gathering size, etc. until most of the adults in the community were immunized or could be rapid-tested to show they were not likely currently infectious. New York is currently piloting holding sporting events using technology to screen for immunization/negative tests to allow higher occupancy for fans.

Another consideration is teens and children. Currently, only the Pfizer vaccine is authorized for use in 16- and 17-year-olds; it is currently being tested in 12-15-year-olds with plans to test in younger children after that. Other companies are also now beginning to study their vaccines in children and teens. Wide adoption of the vaccine among adults is the quickest route to protecting children, given that widespread vaccine use is unlikely for them until 2022.

The wild card continues to be how long-lasting vaccine effects are and how well they prevent serious illness from current and future variants. To that end, spouse B and daughter T are having blood draws this week to evaluate how their immunity is holding up as part of the Pfizer Phase III trial. They received their immunizations in August 2020 and will continue as part of the study into 2022. It’s also possible that Pfizer will be piloting the use of booster shots or of new vaccine formulations to better deal with variants, using the subjects already enrolled in Phase III. They have begun some of this research with Phase I/II participants.

Other vaccine researchers are continuing to study boosters and new vaccines, as well as longevity of immunity. Part of the story about Merck helping to produce the J&J vaccine and other similar partnerships around the world is that the extra doses may be needed as boosters in the future. If not, the surplus vaccines can be distributed through the COVAX initiative internationally to reach underserved populations.

All in all, it’s a hopeful time, but only if people are informed, thoughtful, and community-minded. Please, observe safety measures, get vaccinated when it is your turn, and be kind. We can end the pandemic sooner if we all work together.

good news, bad news, and uncertainty

Yesterday, I got my second dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine as part of their ongoing Phase III trial. As I have written about previously, spouse B, daughter T, and I are all participants but they both received the vaccine last August, while I was in the placebo group. After the vaccine received emergency use authorization, Pfizer unmasked the study so that placebo group folks could receive the vaccine as well, which I gladly did.

B and T both had a day after their second vaccination that they didn’t feel very well, so I planned today as a down day for me. I do have a sore arm, headache, some body aches, fatigue, and a low-grade fever, but ibuprofen and rest are helping somewhat. Only a small minority of people have this level of side effects, but I am more than willing to not feel well for a day in order to have as much protection as I can from the severe form of COVID-19. While the science is not yet clear if the vaccine prevents asymptomatic or mild disease, the data show that moderate and severe cases that lead to hospitalization and/or death are rare.

I am grateful that Paco was among the first at the Health Center in his senior residential facility to receive the vaccine. Two weeks from now, when I will be considered to have peak immunity, it will ease my mind when I am allowed to meet with him indoors to know we are both fully vaccinated. We will still need to wear our masks and keep some distance, but it will feel safer than it has over this past year.

More good news on the vaccine front is that Pfizer and Moderna have been able to ship more doses of their vaccines than they had previously and that the Biden administration has improved distribution in conjunction with the states and local pharmacies and health centers. Pfizer has applied for permission to store its vaccine at regular, rather than ultra-cold, freezer temperatures for up to two weeks, which will make distribution easier. Another positive development is that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine candidate may receive emergency use authorization as early as this weekend. It is a one-dose vaccine that can be stored in the refrigerator, which will make distribution in rural areas and neighborhoods without good transportation options much more effective.

The worry, though, is that more variants of the virus are appearing. Some of them are more easily transmitted and may cause more severe disease. It’s not clear how well some of the vaccines work against some of these variants. It’s also not always apparent which variants will become widespread. For example, a new variant has been identified in New York City, but no one knows if it will become dominant, cause greater sickness, or be prevented by the vaccine.

To combat this, both Pfizer and Moderna are looking at changing their mRNA vaccines to account for new variants, as well as studying if a third dose – or even an annual booster – might be necessary to tame the coronavirus and keep it at bay. It’s part of the reason that it is so important for the Phase III trials to continue collecting data, so we can keep immunity levels in the populations as high as possible.

For now, I’m resting, cuddled under a black fleece throw that the clinical research center gave me, with their name embroidered on it, of course. While study participants do receive a stipend, they also occasionally receive little gifts and it’s nice to have this throw to keep me warm today. The best thing, though, is knowing that the vaccines are helping people and that, despite the uncertainties, we are gaining ground in the battle to end the pandemic.

There is still a long way to go and I beg people to continue to wear masks, keep appropriate distance, wash their hands, and avoid large gatherings. Get whatever vaccine is available to you when it is your turn. Check on vulnerable people in your community to see if they need help to stay safe. Support efforts to get the vaccine to vulnerable people around the world.

It takes all of us working together to end the pandemic and rebuild our communities.

Grim milestone

It has just been announced that the United States has reached 500,000 deaths from COVID-19.

A half a million deaths among the 28 million confirmed cases. About 30% of those infected continue to have symptoms for weeks/months.

All of this in about a year’s time.

I had been watching a recording of mass for the first Sunday of Lent. When it finished, I tuned to a news channel. One of the frequent medical contributors, herself a physician, was speaking about the deaths and was struggling to keep from crying. The host noted how appropriate it was to react emotionally, as she herself was.

Such enormous loss. So much suffering. A reminder that, despite medical advances, we are nearing the death toll of the 1918 flu pandemic.

My eyes are filling with tears as I write this, both from the huge losses in our country and the world and from the losses of each one. Just recently added to the list a friend of my sister’s, the father of B’s co-worker, a resident in the apartments of Paco’s senior community.

Even with the vaccines becoming available, there will be many more illnesses and deaths. There will be uncertainty from the new variants’ effects, how long immunity will last after infection or vaccination, how people will behave as recommendations and policies change.

But today is overwhelmingly sad.

Again.