Bearing Witness to the Pandemic August 2021

Finally, the country passes President Biden’s goal of having 70% of adults vaccinated with just under 160 million adults. Yet, a pandemic of the unvaccinated is still ravaging mostly conservative, rural parts of the country where vaccination rates are often less than 30%. New COVID cases are consistently running above 100,000 per day and deaths per day have crossed the 500 mark; levels not seen since the last wave. Some areas of the South are reporting no more ICU beds, overflowing emergency rooms, and overworked demoralized staffs.

There is not one America fighting COVID but two very different populations with different levels of education, information, and trust in institutions. In most locales, over 95% of their patients hospitalized are the unvaccinated. As a result, the frustration, anger, and hostility between those who wear masks and won’t, those who are vaccinated and not, and those who believe in science versus those who think it is all a hoax, has become a dystopian zombie movie most of us thought we would never see, much less live through.  They are egged on by governors like DeSantis of Florida and Abbott of Texas who, while their hospitals and morgues fill up, double down on the prohibition of mask mandates by local authorities and school districts.

The Delta variant is sending far more younger Americans and children into the hospital than earlier variants. Over 100 kids were admitted during one day alone early in the month. Children under 12 are still not approved for vaccinations even as the next school year begins.  In one week over 70,000 pediatric cases of COVID were recorded.  The good news is that most are mild cases, but still 1% end up requiring hospitalization and 10% of those may die. The evidence is growing that not only is the Delta mutant far more transmissible but it is also more deadly.

In another upside down world scene, over 700,00 bikers descended upon Sturgis, South Dakota early in the month for their annual rally that is likely to become a super-spreader event. Few masks are seen in crowded bars and streets. Governor Kristi Noem blessed the event and welcomed bikers in a rally. They all want their rights and freedoms, but few of them seem to care about the responsibilities and obligations that come from that. If your carelessness or disregard for the safety of someone causes their death, should you not be prosecuted for negligent manslaughter?

And in one more dystopian example, some businesses like that of a taxi company in Missouri are refusing to provide service to anyone who wears a mask or has been vaccinated. Yes, you read that right. If you are masked or vaccinated, they don’t want you as a customer. The owner of the company said he was proud that his state had one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country. Yes, he said that.

The total cases around the world this month surpassed 200 million, a number some think is still way too low. The official death count is about 4.35 million. The death rate of 2% has not changed much in the past year.

While much of the American population refused to be vaccinated, millions across Africa are wanting and waiting for their first vaccine. Less than 2% of the continent’s population is vaccinated.

The WHO has called for a moratorium on a third booster shot being used in developed countries. They make the case that it is unconscionable to be using resources on a booster shot for the wealthy millions when poor billions around the world have not had even a first round of vaccination. The planet is still many months if not years from herd immunity due to those who have been vaccinated or otherwise infected.

While the vaccines have had spectacular success at reducing serious illness, hospitalizations, and deaths, there has been no comparable progress with new treatments for those who do become sick.  The mortality rate of those hospitalized is still low double digits.

The US has begun work on a policy to require all foreign travelers be vaccinated. How that will be enforced and tracked among visitors when we struggle to do that for our own populations is anyone’s guess. The state of New York’s program for a vaccine passport is reported to have become a nightmare to enforce or completely trust.

Canada has lifted its travel ban on Americans as long as they are fully vaccinated and test negative within three days of crossing the border. But the EU has removed the US from its safe list of travelers who do not need to quarantine or be tested after arriving.

The Delta variant has finally come back home to China where the surge has caused officials to forbid travel and lock down people from leaving their homes. Mass testing sights for millions have been resurrected for some cities.

The federal government has approved a third shot for the immunocompromised who are at high risk from the Delta variant with increasing instances of breakthrough infections. Some studies report that almost half of those vaccinated who end up hospitalized are immune compromised. The percentage of breakthrough cases that end up being hospitalized is still in the low single digits in most states. However, because the CDC decided not to track all breakthrough cases of vaccinated people, we still don’t have accurate information for how well the vaccines have truly done in warding off infections.

A new CDC study confirms that vaccine effectiveness against infection wanes after 6-8 months, but still offers strong protection against serious illness, hospitalization, and death. In one nursing home the protection against infection dropped from 75% to 53%. As a result, the Biden administration is recommending a booster shot for all eligible Americans after 8 months.

School boards in Texas and Florida are refusing to abide by state orders that prohibit them from enforcing mask mandates to keep their students safe. More meetings of school boards, county commissions, city councils, and other public forums have become spectacles of those refusing to wear masks and take shots citing misinformation in the justification of their protests. Some meetings have descended into name calling and violence. Anti-vax and anti-mask protesters are seen outside of schools and hospitals not thanking educators and health care workers who risk their lives, but protesting the requirements for masking and vaccination.

Masks are clearly at the center of the new culture war dividing America. However, polls show that a majority of Americans support masking at social events, while traveling, and at schools. The majority also support requirements for vaccination for health care workers and other public-facing employees. But the partisan divide is maddening where 8 in 10 Democrats favor mask wearing by students and teachers while only 3 out of 10 Republicans do so as if they live in two worlds. Those who are vaccinated and wear a mask are clearly losing patience with the minority (or majority depending on where you live) who refuse to abide by common sense to protect themselves, family, co-workers,  and their community. The  federal government is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on hospitalization for unvaccinated patients. If they want the right to not take the vaccine or wear a mask, then they should take the responsibility for the consequences. But they won’t do that either. Anxiety, frustration and anger is simmering just below the surface on all sides.

In Texas, a vocal opponent of wearing masks has died from COVID after spending a month in the ICU. This is happening all across the country where anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers are getting sick and dying.  These needless deaths leave many feeling incredulous and beyond words.

Texas governor Greg Abbott, who has opposed mask mandates and is battling cities and schools on that issue, himself tested positive for COVID during the month.

In the middle of the month, hospitals across the country reported over 75,000 COVID patients with many ICUs full. Field hospitals have been set up in some southern states to relieve overflowing emergency rooms. Patients are often being flown from one facility to another that has an available bed, often hundreds of miles away from their home and family. There are nursing shortages all across the country. Supplies like oxygen and ventilators continue to be scarce in the hardest hit communities and states, mostly in the South. Routine preventive care and even emergency operations like for those who have been shot are being put on hold.

The Biden administration announced that all nursing home employees who work with patients should be vaccinated in order to receive Medicare and Medicaid funding. In cities like St. Louis there are numerous nursing homes with less than 20% vaccination rates among their staffs. This despite the fact that over a third of all deaths in the state were patients in nursing homes and that homes were the first to be offered shots at the beginning of the year.

Missouri allows its summer state fair to go on as usual with over 300,000 in attendance, most who did not  wear masks. A booth offering free vaccines only had 53 takers after 10 days of effort.

Global public health officials are warning that the world may never hit herd immunity for the virus citing that it may now require 80-90% levels of vaccination or immunity due to prior infection. That is due to how long it has taken to rollout the vaccine around the world, hesitancy to take shots or wear masks, and how quickly new mutations are rising. Because of this we may be living in pandemic world for another two years.

Finally, the Pfizer vaccine was awarded full FDA approval after 9 months of emergency use authorization. This now clears the way for more businesses, schools, and employers to require vaccinations among their employees, customers, or students. Yet over two thirds of the Republicans who are not yet vaccinated and were waiting for who knows what, say there is no way they will take a shot regardless of the formal approval. Some conservative right-wing demagogues are now claiming that the rushed formal final approval cannot be trusted. No surprise here.

As the month ends, still just under 30% of adults in the US have yet to be fully vaccinated, and with that number decreasing ever so slowly ,the pandemic illness and death continues on needlessly.

The above news items have been taken from a number of local, regional, national and international news media  including print, broadcast, and digital sources, but no social media. Additional editorial opinions and comments about these news items are those of this author.

The featured image is from the CDC COVID Data Tracker showing trends in the number of daily deaths.

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