Dr. Roger Hicks: Light at the end of the tunnel
I’m worried about this holiday season.
I know we all have pandemic fatigue. Who isn’t tired of masks and not being able to live life normally? We all want to get together with friends and family, especially over the holidays.
At the same time that people are experiencing pandemic fatigue, COVID is rapidly getting worse all over the country as cold weather pushes people indoors, where transmission happens more easily. Cases are skyrocketing in red states and blue, in both urban and rural areas. It took 10 months to hit the first 10 million cases in the US, but only 10 days for the next million. Hospitalizations and deaths are rising. The numbers are also spiking here in Nevada County. We are moving from the Orange to the Red Tier, with its tighter restrictions on our businesses and schools, and risk moving to the most restrictive Purple tier if trends continue. Nobody wants that to happen.
Vaccines are the light at the end of the tunnel but won’t be available to the general public until spring. Our job now is to get as many people as possible through the tunnel alive. Which is why I ask you: What are your plans for the holidays?
A new study shows that 71% of the current outbreaks are linked to small social gatherings and parties. The fact is there is no safe way to gather. A negative COVID test is not a green light for risky behavior. A negative test today does not mean you can safely go to a family gathering or have a group of friends over for dinner tomorrow. It just means you did not have detectable virus at the time your test was taken.
We have seen spikes in COVID-19 after Memorial Day, July 4th, Labor Day and Halloween. There will be another sharp rise after Thanksgiving from already high numbers unless we double down on our protective measures. This is why Vermont, a state that had very low case rates until early November, is now prohibiting multi-household gatherings both indoors and outside, whether in public or private spaces. And this is why the governors of California, Oregon and Washington are advising against non-essential out of state travel and are asking visitors and residents returning home to self-quarantine for 14 days. Now is not the time to get careless — we all need to wear masks, socially distance, and most importantly, avoid in-person socializing.
Fortunately, there is finally some good COVID news. Pfizer and Moderna announced that early results from their coronavirus vaccine trials suggest they are more than 90% effective. Compare that to the flu vaccine, which is typically 40-60% effective, and you can see why so many scientists and health care professionals are excited. These are early results, meaning we do not have long term safety and efficacy data, but they are encouraging. There are still significant hurdles to overcome, like the fact that it requires two doses three weeks apart and the Pfizer vaccine must be shipped and stored in supercooled freezers.
There are many other vaccines in development, including several that are in the final step before FDA approval. Pfizer and Moderna plan to ask for Emergency Use Authorizations for their product in the next few weeks, and manufacturing of the vaccines and others is happening now. Still, in the best-case scenario, there will be a limited number of doses available by the end of December, and it will be months before vaccines can provide community immunity in the US.
We need to hold on for a bit longer, with an “all hands on deck” approach, until enough people can get vaccinated. The only tools we have right now to stop the virus are the same ones we have had since the beginning of the pandemic: masks, social distancing, hand washing, disinfecting frequently touched surfaces and avoiding unnecessary travel.
Masks are the key to slowing the spread. The right kind of masks, when properly worn, protect both the wearers and those around them. Research at Vanderbilt University shows that communities in Tennessee where masks are required have a much lower rate of COVID-19 hospitalizations than those where masks are optional. A University of Kansas study found a 50% reduction in the spread of COVID-19 in counties that had a mask mandate compared to those without. The positive effects can be seen quickly — Kansas counties that require masks saw a decrease within two to three weeks of implementing the mandate. Mask counties held cases flat, while cases in no-mask counties steadily increased. Masks do not eliminate COVID, but they significantly slow the spread of the disease.
Research also shows that regardless of restrictions, if COVID-19 is surging, people won’t go out and spend money. Our local businesses will be hurting until we can get COVID under control.
This is not the time to let up. We will be in a much better position next year. Safe and effective vaccines are the long game. Masks and social distancing, and avoiding large gatherings, especially indoors, is what we need to do this year. Plan your big in-person Thanksgiving celebration with friends and family for 2021 and get together by Zoom this holiday season.
So please, for another few months, stay in place, keep your space, and cover your face.
Dr. Roger Hicks is the Medical Director for Yubadocs Urgent Care in Grass Valley and the founding president and current Director of the California Urgent Care Association.
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