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COVID Zero expectations: the pandemic diaries

Part Two

In the haze of memory, after an exhausting year of coping with an invisible, seemingly intractable virus that contaminated the very air we breathe, we dimly recall what life had been like in 2019 and before. Before those stark images of COVID-19 hospital hallways and rooms, before fatigued and overwhelmed first responders, their gaze a thousand-yard stare filled with numbing pain, struggled to say anything. Before the massive loss of life slowly approached the incomprehensible. Before the all of it.

And so, of course, we yearn for COVID Zero, for a return to any semblance of normal, and wonder if the past will ever again be our present.

We are now told that a troika of available vaccines can create a herd immunity, offering an endorphin-inducing promise that we will once again see that familiar twitch of the lips, up or down, give a hug, offer an extended hand, all while shattering that impossible six-foot barrier. This is our hope. Everything open. Everyone, all communities, majorities and minorities, no matter, vaccinated.

But to arrive at that tantalizing point, when we can declare the virus defeated, we will have to overcome vaccine hesitancy as well as vaccine access.

Regarding hesitancy, there is an abundance of anti-science, conspiratorial disinformation and anecdotal narratives that throw shade on the efficacy of these truly miraculous vaccines now in the pipeline. Clearly this anti-vax doom-scrolling stokes fear, and relies on false cause-and-effect linkages that allege all manner of absurd side effects, including altering your DNA.

Far more understandable is the vaccine hesitancy that exists in the Black community, a hesitancy rooted in mistrust and doubt. African Americans are four times more likely to be hospitalized and three times as likely to die from COVID, and yet they have nearly the lowest rate of vaccinations among all ethnic groups. Some 35 percent of Blacks say they will not get vaccinated. Embedded in that number is not only fear about safety, but the racial memory of the Tuskegee experiments (begun in 1932) when Black men were promised treatment for syphilis by the government, and received none, shattering the oath of “Do no harm.” Many died, went blind, or developed serious health issues.

The tragedy surrounding vaccine hesitancy and disinformation is that COVID-19 is judged by scientists to be 15 times more lethal than the seasonal flu. And for those struggling to assess the risk, they should know that it is the consensus of scientists and epidemiologists that for fully vaccinated people (using any of the three now available), serious illness is rare and the chances of being hospitalized or of dying all but zero. In other words, according to reports from the scientific community, delivered with conviction and urgency, these vaccines are remarkably effective and Americans should take whatever is available. To compare the efficacy of J&J to Moderna or to Pfizer is to make the perfect the enemy of the good. Actually, their reported nuanced differences fall into the category of apples and oranges.

There is also the question of the state of our public health system, lack of equity regarding access, and the overall health/wellness and morbidity of our nation. But that’s for later. Now is our moment to vaccinate the nation and strive for 70% to 85% herd immunity.

Regarding the question of COVID Zero: according to scientists, it’s more likely that this virus will become endemic and follow the path of our seasonal flu, with yearly tweaking of the vaccines as we go. We’ll see. And, of course, there are the wild card variants.

As an aside, my wife and I received our first shots (Moderna). All good. We now wait four weeks for the second. But even then we will mask up and follow the CDC guidelines.

Chris Honoré is an Ashland Tidings columnist.