Sunday, February 14, 2021
The improved numbers over the past few weeks are desperately welcomed good news. But the harsh truth is the pandemic is far from over. COVID-19 is here to stay, for the long term. We’re going to have to learn how to live with the virus, which Rhode Island has failed to do.
We’re all sick and tired of the pandemic. We all want life to ‘go back to normal’. The hardest thing to hear is that the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is going to be with us for a long time.
Rhode Island must dramatically improve how it handles the pandemic, because the state has failed by almost every measure. In particular, Rhode Island must radically expand and accelerate vaccinations and figure out how to do this on an ongoing basis, because regular coronavirus vaccines will be a routine part of life going forward. If the state can’t figure out how to do this efficiently and on a continuing basis, it’s going to be hard, and risky, to live here.
The first step in fixing a problem is to admit that we have one.
1. The coronavirus is going to be with us for a long time.
The virus has become endemic. It is now so widespread that it would be virtually impossible to eliminate it. We must learn how to live with it. There are ways to effectively contain the virus even without vaccines so as to make it negligible, as Australia, New Zealand, and other countries have done.
Here in the U.S., less than three months ago North Dakota had the highest infection rate in the country at 185/100,000/day. Soaring infection and death rates forced the state to finally face reality and take meaningful actions. The result is today North Dakota has the lowest infection rate in the continental U.S. at 7.2/100,000.
Our neighbors Vermont and Maine also continue to have low infection rates, and have consistently done much better jobs responding to the pandemic and keeping their residents safe than Rhode Island has.
Unfortunately, we have shown little willingness for the months of enforced lockdowns, mandated mask wearing, closed borders, and thorough testing and contact tracing that worked so well in Australia and other places. The reaction of many people to such measures is a cry of ‘don’t tell me what to do’ – with the result that the U.S. has been, and will probably continue to be, the most infected country on Earth.
As Dr. Anthony Fauci said, “Unlikely the coronavirus will ever be eradicated”.
2. Rhode Island has failed to protect us.
By most objective measures Rhode Island’s handling of the pandemic has been a complete failure compared with other states. We currently have the 7th worst infection rate in the country, and the 5th highest per capita death rate.
One of the biggest problems RI has now is the lowest vaccination rate in the country – a complete failure by state government.
The pandemic is a long-term war. It’s not a one-time battle. The new normal from now on means having to get vaccinated regularly. It’s not going to be just one (or two) shot(s) in the arm, but periodic vaccinations. If Rhode Island doesn’t quickly figure out how to do this – like almost every other state has – it’s going to make life much harder and more dangerous here.
3. The SARS-CoV-2 virus is not like the cold or flu.
Almost half a million people in the U.S. have died of COVID-19 – about as many Americans as were killed in World War I and World War II combined – and almost 2½ million worldwide. The SARS-CoV-2 virus is different from other respiratory viruses in that it infects your blood vessels, and causes hypercoagulopathy, serious and potentially fatal blood clots.
COVID-19 is much more than just getting through the few weeks of acute infection. For many people the biggest problems are the long term effects. These can affect people of all ages. Being ‘young’ will not protect you from the potential long-term damage. This study found that almost 70% of COVID survivors had organ damage four months after their original infection.
Long COVID is increasingly being recognized as a major problem, such as chronic fatigue even months after the original infection. A study published last month showed that 76% of people still have health problems six months after their infection.
Heart damage can be common after COVID. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 78% of COVID survivors had measurable heart impacts, and 60% had inflammation of the heart.
Brain damage and cognitive impairment after COVID can also be common. One study found that 37% of COVID survivors have neurological damage and another large study in over 84,000 people found that having COVID was equivalent to the brain aging by 10 years.
The virus attacks the lungs. Studies have shown that 50% of COVID survivors can have some form of lung damage.
If you need to see graphic evidence, this is what the lungs of COVID victims can look like.
These and many other reasons are why you don’t want to ‘just get COVID’ and ‘get it over with’. Surviving the acute phase of infection may be the least of your worries, and just the beginning of problems that could last a very long time, and possibly the rest of your life.
4. Vaccines alone cannot eliminate the virus.
The coronavirus vaccines have been a remarkable development and will be an essential tool going forward. We all need to get vaccinated as soon as possible. Unfortunately, vaccines alone will not eliminate the virus.
First, no vaccine is 100% effective. Even in a best case scenario, some people will not be protected. Second, not everyone will choose to be vaccinated. Both of these issues mean part of the population will remain at risk of infection – and leave a reservoir for the virus to survive. Third, as new mutations continue to emerge, vaccines may be less effective against them.
Lastly, while vaccines can protect you from illness, they may not fully protect you from infection. This is an important difference. Many vaccines will keep you from getting sick, but may not stop the virus from colonizing your body. It’s not yet known how well the COVID vaccines will prevent infection. The preliminary evidence suggests they can reduce infectivity, but will probably not completely prevent infection. This means that even vaccinated people can still spread infection to others and make them ill.
For these and reasons, the mythical goal of ‘herd immunity’ might simply not be possible.
We all want life to go back to normal. But vaccines alone can’t do it. As Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University said, “If you’re looking for a magic wand, you won’t find one in vaccines”.
5. It’s probably going to get worse before it gets better.
The recent decline in infections is a welcome relief. But we’re not out of the woods yet. Other countries such as the U.K. and South Africa saw an initial dip in infections turn into a surge as new mutations hit. We may be in the calm before the storm.
As long as the virus is circulating in people, new mutations will continue to emerge. Evolutionary pressures will select for variants that help the virus survive, especially strains that are more easily spread, and potentially causing more serious illness. One of these mutations, called B.1.1.7 and originally identified in the U.K., is doubling every 10 days in the U.S. It could become the dominant variant here by next month.
We can’t just quarantine some people and let others do whatever they want, because the virus spreads and stays in the community, and keeps mutating. The more virus that is out there, the more resistance will develop to vaccines. The virus cannot mutate if it cannot replicate, and the more people walking around ignoring safety measures, the more infections we will have.
Now is not the time to let down our guard. In the face of new variants spreading, Rhode Island allowing bars to reopen at a time when the infection rate is still dangerously high, greater than it was at its peak last Spring, seems like the dumbest move imaginable.
6. If you’ve already had COVID, you are not immune.
7. You will need to get vaccinated more than once, and possibly a few times a year.
We are already seeing vaccines being less effective against some of the mutations. This means we will need new vaccines for the new variants, and we will all probably need to get vaccinated more than once.
This is not about ‘companies just want to make money’. This is the science of the virus and how vaccines work. The new reality of life for the foreseeable future is that we will all need to be vaccinated regularly. Whether annual booster shots or new vaccines for new variants, frequent vaccination will be a fact of life. Rhode Island must develop a working distribution and administration program for everyone to be able to get repeatedly revaccinated as needed, or life here will be hard.
Every other state in the country has come up with better, faster, more effective ways of getting people vaccinated than Rhode Island has. We don’t need to start from scratch. Our neighbor Connecticut has the fourth highest vaccination rate in the country. Why not learn from them?
8. Masks work.
One of the saddest things about the pandemic in this country is the politicization of mask wearing. The reality is many studies have shown that masks work. Wearing masks reduces the risk of infection. It protects you, and it protects others. Masks save lives. Not surprisingly, better masks provide increased protection.
Not wearing a mask increases not only your risk of getting sick, but the chances that you will infect someone else. ‘Freedom’ also applies to other people, and respecting their rights to not be unnecessarily infected by others. No one would want to be poisoned by someone. But that’s exactly what you subject someone to by not wearing a mask, the risk of infecting them with virions you may be exhaling with every breath.
People are generally not good at evaluating risk. This is especially true with unpleasant things we would rather not hear. Listen to the science and the findings of experts, and wear a good mask. It will reduce your risk of getting infected, and the chances that you will infect someone else.
9. Life in a plague state won’t be fun.
If Rhode Island doesn’t implement an effective vaccination program and other safety measures, it probably won’t be much fun to live here. How would it feel to have to think about the risk of getting infected every time you leave your home? If any visit to a restaurant, store, or place people gather brings a risk of infection, how often would you do it? Is it really worth getting sick, having long term health problems, or dying?
Our state leaders should think about how many tourists will want to come to a state with a high risk of getting infected. The experiences of other states and countries have shown that economies thrive when people not only feel safe, but actually are safe enough to go out and spend money.
Unless you like the idea of spending the rest of your life cooped up at home, Rhode Island is going to have to substantially improve its vaccination and other pandemic control efforts.
10. Vote like your life depends on it. Because it does.
If Rhode Island doesn’t learn how to live with the virus, and create the infrastructure, processes, and systems for regular vaccinations of all people, the state may become an unlivable cesspool of contagion to be avoided.
The solution is to have state leaders committed to solving the problems. The good news is, this is completely up to us. We get to elect our leaders.
Likewise, vote for state representatives with the experience, courage, and backbone to stand up and do the right things, who put our needs and interests first, and not people who ignore our calls and emails. Don’t vote for people who refuse to let us speak up about the profound problems Rhode Island is having with its vaccination program. It was a major blunder by Dan McKee to giving preference for politicians over 75+.
The next election is just next year. If you don’t like the job the current politicians have done, vote for someone else. We can vote out, and vote in, anyone we want. If we don’t, then we have only ourselves to blame.
It’s human nature to get mad and lash out at those who tell us things we don’t want to hear. But shooting the messenger doesn’t change things. Pointing out unpleasant facts is not to create fear, but to call attention to something vitally important that could cost you your health, or your life.
Of the many drugs, vaccines, and other things that have been studied and tried against COVID-19, denial hasn’t been shown to be effective against the virus. Pretending won’t protect you from infection, or change the reality of the situation.
If you want to be angry at someone, express it to our state leaders who have allowed the pandemic to get as bad as it is in Rhode Island, and refuse to do what it takes to make life safer here. Lashing out at public health experts or others who say things you don’t like won’t help anyone.
What happens next is completely up to us.
Nick Landekic a retired scientist and biotechnology executive with over 35 years of experience in the pharmaceutical industry.