“I never would have imagined that within a year of identifying … a new virus, we would have a vaccine that is being administered to people, that is safe, and is effective and it gives us hope,” said Dr. Richard Besser, former acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “On one of the darkest days in this pandemic, we finally have a ray of hope.”
Across the country, many health care workers looked on in awe and disbelief as their coworkers received the vaccine. In California, an ICU nurse became one of the first people in the state to get vaccinated. In Washington DC, George Washington University Hospital emergency department nurse Barbara Neiswander was among the first health care workers to receive the first dose of the vaccine and reported “no side effects at all.” And about 200 staff members at the University Medical Center of Southern Nevada were also vaccinated Monday, including doctors, nurses and respiratory technicians.
“We really had tears in our eyes as the vaccine arrived here,” CEO Mason Van Houweling said.
All 50 states, Washington DC, and Puerto Rico received vaccine doses Monday. More shipments are expected through the rest of the week, Gen. Gustave Perna, chief operating officer of Operation Warp Speed, said Monday, adding vaccinations are also expected to start in nursing homes.
But vaccines will make little impact on what’s coming up ahead: a devastating winter that leading health officials have projected will be one of the most difficult times in the nation’s history.
The US has in the past week averaged more than 215,000 cases daily — a number that’s likely to keep growing as states continue to report the aftermath of Thanksgiving gatherings and travel. Officials also warn holiday gatherings this month could further fuel an already rampant spread of the virus and result in another surge.
Covid-19 hospitalizations are higher than ever — with now more than 110,500 patients nationwide, according to the COVID Tracking Project. Every day for the past week, an average of 2,389 Americans lost their lives to the virus. More than 300,000 have died since the pandemic’s start across the country. Another 186,000 are projected to lose their lives over the next three months, according to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
“This vaccine, as wonderful as it is, is not going to change the trajectory of what we experience this winter,” Besser told CNN. “It’s not going to change what we need to do; it’s not going change the need for us all to wear masks, and social distance and wash our hands.”
Overcoming vaccine hesitancy
To help the US get to the other side, some of the challenges that officials are working to tackle include addressing skepticism from many communities about the vaccine.
“Nothing has been in my heart more than this issue over the past several weeks to months,” US Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams told CNN. “I’ve been working with Pfizer, with Moderna, with AstraZeneca, with Johnson & Johnson to make sure we have appropriate numbers of minorities enrolled in these vaccine trials so that people can understand that they are safe.”
Adams said he’s been working with leaders in minority communities, including faith leaders and fraternities and sororities, as well as celebrity influencers who can “use their megaphone to share the appropriate information with people, because vaccine hesitancy is one of the greatest social injustices out there.”
“There are tens of thousands of Black and brown people dying every year because they are distrustful of the system,” Adams added. “In many cases, rightly so, but also because they’re not getting the facts to help restore their trust in the system.”
Sandra Lindsay, an ICU nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens, New York City, was among the first Americans to get a shot of the vaccine.
“I understand the mistrust among the minority community,” she said. “I don’t ask people to do anything that I would not do myself and so I was happy to volunteer to be among the first.”
“I did not know that I would make history and that’s not why I did it. I wanted to do it to inspire people who may be skeptical about taking the vaccine and trust in the science,” Lindsay added.
Beginning of the end … but not the end
Impacts of the vaccinations won’t come overnight, Dr. Anthony Fauci said Monday.
“It’s not going to be like turning a light switch on and off,” he said during a Center for Strategic and International Studies virtual health event. “I don’t believe we’re going to be able to throw the masks away and forget about physical separation in congregate settings for a while, probably likely until we get into the late fall or early next winter.”
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Monday he believes the general public could start getting vaccinated by late February and March — earlier than other experts have estimated.
“It really, again, is going to be up to our nation’s governors, but with the Moderna and Pfizer vaccine, we’ll have, as I said, as many as 100 (million) shots in arms by the end of February,” he told NBC on Monday.
“If we get the Johnson & Johnson or AstraZeneca vaccine approved in January, when their data comes in, we’ll have significant additional supplies,” Azar added. “Late February, in the March time period, I think you’ll start seeing much more like a flu vaccination campaign — people going into their Kroger, their CVS, or Walgreens, Walmart.”
Returning to normality, officials have said, will depend on how quickly vaccinations happen — and how many Americans get vaccinated. About 70% to 80% of the American public needs to be immune to the virus before it is “gone,” according to Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health.
“We think we can get there by June or so for almost all of the 330 million Americans who are interested in getting this vaccine,” Collins told NBC on Sunday. “But if only half of them do so, this could go on and on and on.”
Difficult months are ahead
In the meantime, the US is preparing to face some of the pandemic’s darkest days yet. in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom said that while the vaccines offered a moment of hope, he added “we are in the midst of the worst moment of this pandemic.”
The state added more than 30,000 new Covid-19 cases for the fourth straight day and hospitalizations and ICU admissions are at all-time highs.
Los Angeles County health officials said Monday new cases have increased 625% since November 1, with “younger people continuing to drive the increase in community transmission.”
More than 4,200 people are hospitalized with Covid-19, officials said, and 21% of those are in the ICU.
“Our reality is frightening at the moment,” they said. “By next weekend, there are likely to be over 5,000 patients hospitalized and more than 50% of ICU beds occupied by COVID-19 patients.”
In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio hinted at tighter restrictions in the coming weeks, saying the city was on a “very troubling” trajectory, “in terms of the number of people who get sick, the number of people we would lose … and obviously the impact on hospitals, their ability to treat people.”
“We’ve got to start planning on bigger actions now,” he said Monday. “I think the natural time to do that is immediately after Christmas.”
In Nevada, Gov. Steve Sisolak announced this week he was extending Covid-19 restrictions through January 15, saying the state was “at a critical point.”
“We will be monitoring and evaluating our current situation day to day and … (we) will remain under the current restrictions for now, with the goal of getting through the next month.”
“But I need to be clear,” the governor added. “If officials and experts agree that our trends are going beyond our ability to respond, I will be forced to come in front of you all again with tougher actions.”