Vaccines are coming. So are the Holidays

This article is dedicated to all frontline workers, in recognition of the disproportionate price that they are paying in this crisis

See Disclaimer.

Back on December 4, I wrote Oregon’s 1000th COVID-19 death, to mark one more grim milestone of the COVID-19 pandemic. There had, at the time, been over 217 thousand deaths across the US.

The article was an invitation to reflect on how different things could have been, if we had collectively followed the advice of public health experts from the beginning. It was also a reminder that, although we cannot change the past, simple steps (masks, social distancing, reduced travel/gathering, vaccination) can still make a difference.

Among the replies elicited by the article, two stood out:

[1] “it’s not about your health…. it’s about compliance. Now you people who fell for it are going to make them mandate the vaccine…. because you are sheep who can’t think for yourselves. This is about the great reset. Wake up.”

[2]👏 MASKS 👏 DON’T 👏 WORK”

These replies powerfully illustrate how surreal and uninformed our national dialogue has become. They also illustrate why we failed to address a serious public health threat at its early stages, thus letting it explode into an out-of-control crisis with deep health, economic and other broad societal implications.

We cannot afford to normalize a mix of conspiracy theories, misinformation and intolerance. It is thus important re-iterating that:

  • Whatever we think of our government, COVID-19 is not a dark conspiracy to control us. It is a pandemic that (by definition) affects the entire world, and has already exerted a heavy toll, globally and—disproportionately—on our country.
  • National and international COVID-19 data, although not perfect, reflect best efforts by credible and experienced professionals to quantify the crisis. Through December 17, 2020, the World Health Organization reports 72,851,747 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 1,643,339 deaths, globally. These numbers now include 16,446,844 confirmed cases and 301,536 deaths in the US (and 1,283 deaths in Oregon). We ignore numbers like these at our own peril, and that of those around us.
  • Scientific understanding on COVID-19 has progressed fast. There is now near-consensus on how to minimize the spread of the virus. Science has also now produced carefully vetted, and approved, vaccines. But it will take time for the vaccines to reach enough people, and become an effective collective shield. Until then, we need to slow down the spreading of the virus by other means.

Science has also shown that even people without symptoms can carry, and transmit, the virus. That the concentration of the virus matters for infection. That the primary transmission mechanism is  through the air, although contaminated surfaces also have infection potential. From all these factors, health experts—notably including the US Surgeon General—have issued a “3Ws” recommendation: wear a mask, wash your hands, watch your distances and environment.

Masks are essential mitigation tools, and address the aerial spread of the virus. They protect others (first and foremost), and ourselves (also). Wearing a mask does not equate to fear, weakness or naivete—but rather to caring, respect and social responsibility.

Frequent washing or sanitizing of hands addresses viral spread through contact with contaminated surfaces. At trivial effort and minimal imposition, this is a common sense, basic protection for individuals and those around them.   

Social distancing and avoiding ‘large’ gatherings again minimizes aerial spread. Who does not miss hugging loved ones, dining out, or going to concerts or sports events? Who does not understand that small businesses are hurting? Who does not worry about the psychological impacts of isolation, or impacts of disrupted preventive medical care? But the more rigorous and disciplined we are, the shorter the forced isolation (and its impacts) will be.

Following the 3Ws recommendation will buy us essential time for the vaccines to become effective at community, state and country levels. Other things matter too. With the holidays upon us, curtailing traveling and family gatherings will be painful. But, in the collective interest, health experts ask us to do exactly that, this year.

Health experts told us ahead of Thanksgiving that traveling and gathering could aggravate cases and deaths. Too many of us did not listen—and the entire country is now paying the price. Hospital ICU beds are reaching capacity, once again. Extreme measures might need to be imposed, again. People are dying, or suffering through illness or economically—again. Was it worth it? Will we at least learn ahead of the upcoming holidays?  

Which brings me back to the replies to my earlier article, and similarly-minded content that freely circulates on social media. The internet is a powerful societal tool, that delivers many life conveniences. But, as all tools, it can be used for good or evil. Wrong or misleading information, irresponsibly disseminated on social media, is always damaging. That might be especially true for COVID-19, ahead of this holiday season.

Please act responsibly. Containing COVID-19 impacts is not a partisan issue, but rather a collective obligation. Let’s commit to truth in information, to the 3Ws, and to safe ways to celebrate the holidays.

— Antonio Baptista

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