It’s been almost four months since my second COVID-19 vaccine dose. Last time we came here, I looked forward to a future “post-pandemic new normal”. Now, we return to examine the present pandemic reality that sometimes feels like the 2020 hellscape we were hoping to leave behind last year.
Towards the end of my trip last week, my father got some news that ties into the recent headline news. Once again, we were reminded of how close to home this COVID-19 pandemic can reach.
It started well, and it ended… in a very 2021 fashion.
Back in June, I packed plenty of masks and hand sanitizer in my suitcase. I did it again last month. I did it again this month. As the saying goes, I’d much rather be safely over-prepared than sorrily underprepared.
At times, I thought about cancelling my restaurant reservations and scaling back my planned outings. Hell, at times I thought about cancelling this trip altogether. Ultimately, I decided to go ahead with this trip as planned. I also decided to be as safe as possible with more outside time and less time mulling around in potentially crowded indoor spaces.
During the first half of my trip, I had an easy time sticking to this plan. Encinitas, a coastal city in North San Diego County, has plenty of gorgeous beaches and perfect opportunities to enjoy our time outside. Among D Street, Swami’s, and San Elijo/Cardiff, I never got bored exploring the beach and enjoying the late summer California coastal vibes.
During the second half of my trip it got trickier at times, but I always had masks handy and ready to wear when my dad wanted to go inside a store. During the final 36 hours of my trip, I got even more vigilant. When my father got the call about his eldest brother in Wisconsin, that served as a brutal reminder of just how vicious COVID-19 can be.
So what happened to my uncle?
Long story short, my uncle and aunt flew to the east coast to visit another family member who is probably unvaccinated and definitely opposed to masking. Let’s just say this family member fits the stereotype of “radicalized Trump voter who now lives one’s life sharing QAnon and anti-vaccine memes on Facebook”. Despite the ample warning signs, my uncle and aunt flew there to see this relative anyway because they wanted quality in-person family time.
Since flying home, they both paid a steep price. Though both were vaccinated, both tested positive for COVID-19. Fortunately for my aunt, her breakthrough infection seems to be mild and giving way to recovery. Unfortunately for my uncle, his more immunocompromised health status led to worsening health complications.
He was hospitalized, though initially it seemed like he would nonetheless pull through. But then last Wednesday, my dad got a phone call from another relative about my uncle. My uncle’s kidney had begun to fail, and his doctors subsequently found signs of COVID-19 complications straining additional vital organs.
Their east coast trip was supposed to be a charmed family reunion. Instead, it’s become a prime example of what happens when one person decides to become “the weakest link” and allow COVID-19 to wreak havoc in other people’s lives.
Let’s revisit the realm of breakthrough infections and clear the air once more on the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines.
As we explored and explained a month ago, breakthrough infections can and do occur. The COVID-19 vaccines may not be infallible or omnipotent, but they’re nonetheless highly effective at reducing transmission and preventing severe disease. As we regularly see on Covid Act Now’s national dashboard, the states with the highest vaccination rates usually tend to be the same states with lower than average infection rates, new daily caseloads, hospitalizations, and death rates. And looking through data from Nevada Health Response and the Southern Nevada Health District (SNHD), it appears that less than 7% of fully vaccinated Clark County residents reported breakthrough infections, that only 5% of these reported breakthrough infections resulted in hospitalization, and only 1% of these reported breakthrough infections ended in death.
On the surface, these overall figures look quite impressive. But because the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) stopped collecting and compiling comprehensive data on breakthrough infections in May, some public health experts have warned that the full honest picture on breakthrough infections may be messier than the more cleanly impressive impression we’ve gotten from the CDC this summer. Overall, we still have evidence showing the remarkable efficacy of these COVID-19 vaccines. However it was never wise or rational to assume that these vaccines make us invincible, especially as long as a critical mass of people refuse to “get the jab”, meaning that COVID-19 still has more opportunities to spread and mutate into new variants.
Older patients and the immunocompromised have always been among the most vulnerable during this pandemic, and that remains the same when it comes to the risk of breakthrough infections. That’s what happened to my uncle and aunt when they visited South Carolina. Because my aunt was in better overall health going in, she only experienced a milder case that she’s since been recovering from. But since my uncle was older and immunocompromised, all it took was this one wrong move to spark the ultimate pandemic-era nightmare come true.
Just because some “influencers” told us “COVID is over” doesn’t mean it’s actually over.
Last Friday, my dad got the phone call I feared the most: My aunt confirmed to him that my uncle died the night before. So far my dad has taken it better than I have, even though he was always closer to my uncle. He just seemed to understand the severity of the danger that my uncle fell into, so he wasn’t too surprised by this news.
As for me, it’s more of a mix of sorrow and anger. I’m very saddened to see my uncle go like this. I’m saddened to see my aunt lose her beloved life partner. I’m furious that he died such a preventable death. I’m furious that all it took was an alleged “act of love” to cause his death. And really, I’m beside myself that my own family are a tiny part of this national news on COVID-19, breakthrough infections, and the Delta variant, yet so many Americans still don’t seem to understand the reality behind the seemingly stolid statistics and constantly breathless media pundit “hot takes”.
At the same time, I also feel guilty. After all, I finally started to travel again this summer. While my uncle was in the hospital, I was walking at the beach and dining out at restaurants (mostly on the patio). As he experienced his final minutes of life, I was en route to the airport. While he’s dead and gone, I’m alive and here.
It’s one thing to read through scientific studies and COVID-19 statistics. It’s on a whole another level when one’s own loved ones fall prey to this pandemic. As much as many of us just wanted to chant, “COVID is over, baby!”, and believe it, wishcasting and denial won’t help us end this pandemic.
So how can we actually send this COVID-19 pandemic packing before it attacks any more of us?
Between our own rocky road here in America and the U.K.’s botched “Freedom Day” that’s resulted in England’s own stubbornly high count of new COVID-19 infections, it’s become painfully obvious that reliance on vaccine distribution alone is not an effective strategy to curb this pandemic. We need a more comprehensive portfolio of carrots and sticks to drive up our vaccination rate in order to expand our overall level of community protection, and we need to continue to utilize proven prevention methods (such as masking in crowded areas and public indoor spaces) while we work towards a high enough level of herd immunity that will allow for a safer removal of health safety rules.
For months, we’ve seen politicians and pundits argue over “lockdowns” and base their #based “hot takes” on certain not-medical-expert activists’ political campaigns against “lockdowns”. As we’ve been saying for months, this political rhetoric is completely divorced from both the medical science and real-world economics on how good protection of public health actually helps us avoid both unnecessary harm from COVID-19 and the actual prolonged and widespread business closures that so many of us are trying to prevent.
In recent days, my own family have experienced a very tragic reminder that this COVID-19 pandemic remains far from over. My uncle died a horrifying and unnecessary death. We don’t have to just accept this kind of pain and suffering as any kind of “new normal”. We can choose a better and more sustainable path. We just actually have to put in the work to protect our public health.
If you have further questions about COVID-19 and your health, check Immunize Nevada for more information on vaccine availability in your area, check Nevada Health Response for testing in your area, and check Nevada 211 for more health care resources. If you’re in need of additional aid, check the Nevada Current’s and Battle Born Progress’ resource guides. If you can afford proper treatment and you are fortunate enough to help others in need, please donate to larger operations like Direct Relief and Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, and to local groups like Three Square. And for goodness sake, please maintain best practices to help stop the spread.
The cover photo was taken by me.