This has been difficult to write as I look back on half a million COVID-19 deaths here in the United States. I am heartbroken to say that I knew a few of those who passed away. There’s so much in life we have no control over – natural disasters being one of them. Is a pandemic a natural disaster, or is it a perfectly engineered storm that comes together when there are so many variables lining up to allow unimpeded spread?
Sixty percent of adults in the U.S. are living with at least one chronic medical condition, putting them in a category at high risk for COVID-19. There are 28.9 million uninsured individuals in our country, which means they won’t know, won’t seek care and won’t modify any high-risk behavior that compromises their health. These facts are disheartening on their own, but when you add in a pandemic, you can quickly see how dire the situation can become.
When Johns Hopkins created the COVID-19 dashboard, making it easier to keep up with new cases and the number of deaths, very few could imagine that we would surpass 26 million cases, and more than half a million deaths in just 12 months. How did we get here?
In a country that gave us Dr. Fauci (he was a hero to us when I was in grad school in the 1990s) and so many brilliant researchers, how did we detach from the sensibility of something as simple as hand hygiene? How did we decide to forgo social distancing or mask wearing since we are not in the high-risk group? How did we pick politics over science in the midst of an uncertain and potentially deadly pandemic?
Asking these questions puts me in a tailspin of depression and sorrow for all those families whose lives have been forever changed due to COVID-19 and the ease with which SARS-CoV-2 has found more and more and more bodies to inhabit.
Research shows that misinformation peaks on social media during presidential election years, and 2020 was one such year that did not deviate from the norm. This reveals a tremendous opportunity to utilize social media to spread evidence-based and scientific data in a manner that can be easily understood by everyone. By communicating science through these non-traditional channels, we can ensure that in the future, there will be a greater tendency to follow the guidance recommended by scientific and medical experts.
Many of us have already gotten vaccinated with either the Pfizer or the Moderna vaccines, with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine following closely behind. Some of you have experienced side effects, and while that can be worrisome, it is infinitely better than the morbidity and mortality of COVID-19 or even the long-hauler effect being experienced by some survivors. Vaccines enhance your body’s own ability to prevent severe COVID-19, which, in turn, prevents death. What we do not yet know is how effective the vaccine is in preventing infections, and thereby also preventing the ability to spread the virus to others. And the presence of new variants adds another layer of uncertainty as well as opportunity to study the efficacy of our vaccines.
This is why we must continue to engage in prevention measures – wearing face coverings, frequent hand washing, physical distancing – while we wait on additional data. Just because we’re getting vaccinated does not mean we are out of the woods yet.
What is clear is the tremendous and unprecedented scientific and technological advancements that have enabled us to create vaccines in less than nine months – what an exciting time for our students to step into science and medicine. My hope as a scientist and educator is that we all learn from this pandemic so we can apply those lessons in the future if, unfortunately, they are needed.