It’s been just over three months since my first COVID-19 vaccine dose. Not only have I begun to rediscover the places and activities that gave me joy in my pre-pandemic life, but I’m also working to define whatever will eventually become my “post-pandemic new normal”.
Yet in the last month, we’ve run into reminders that the pandemic is still not over, no matter what any politician says on the campaign trail.
I got both of my COVID-19 vaccine shots in April 2021. Two months later, they came in very handy.
As soon as I returned from San Diego in early June, I had to take a crash course on the new COVID-19 crisis at our doorstep: the Delta variant. The sudden explosion of Delta infections across the U.S. and around the world added new exclamation points to our urgent need for greater COVID-19 vaccine uptake, yet it also led to greater confusion among the general public thanks to frequent media reports about breakthrough infections and renewed speculation over whether the COVID-19 vaccines really work.
Spoiler alert: The COVID-19 vaccines work quite well, even against newer variants like Delta. For over a month, we’ve been tracking data that all point to a horrifying COVID-19 resurgence in areas with stubbornly low vaccine uptake while the most highly vaccinated populations remain very protected. And in the last month, we’ve examined how the political fault lines from the 2020 election are shaping the ongoing spread of the Delta variant by way of the COVID-19 vaccines becoming new cannon fodder for America’s seemingly never-ending politically polarized “culture war”.
As I left my home for the airport on July 1, I felt a little nervous about Nevada’s disturbingly high level of COVID-19 infections, but I ultimately calmed down as I reminded myself of the still solid efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines. At least, my dad and I are among the fortunate. Unfortunately we can’t say the same about some 52% of our fellow Americans, and more specifically 57% of our fellow Nevadans (as of yesterday, according to the CDC’s vaccination data tracker).
Almost a week after flying home, I’m not feeling sick. Here’s what I did to help protect myself and others.
As I hinted late last month, I packed plenty of masks in my suitcases and carry-on bag, and then I made sure to use them when I was either in an indoor environment with known unvaccinated people or in an indoor space and/or crowded area where I just didn’t know everyone else’s vaccination status. For me, it’s not about “making a statement” or “punishing” anyone. It’s simply a matter of me trying my best to avoid spreading COVID-19 to other people while further reducing my already low risk of succumbing to a breakthrough infection.
When Los Angeles County (California) Public Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer merely recommended that fully vaccinated people continue to wear masks in public indoor spaces in order to reduce the larger risk of greater community spread, a nationwide firestorm erupted over (false) rumors of “another California lockdown!” As has been the case since the early days of the pandemic, lost amidst the heated political arguments was the simple science on how best to protect one another.
As I’m writing this now, I feel fine. I’m not showing signs of illness, and I feel better about doing such a simple thing to lessen risk of COVID-19 infection for myself and others. I feel even better about my vaccination opening the door to reconnect with some of my favorite people and places.
How’s my father doing?
During my first pandemic-era trip to California, I ventured with my father to his primary care physician’s office so he could receive his second COVID-19 vaccine dose. When I returned this month, he was recovering from eye surgery, but moving around some more on his own. He has experienced vision impairment since his heart attack and fall in November 2019, and he continues to utilize a cane or walker for personal mobility, but at least he has not come down with any kind of severe COVID-19 infection (or any COVID-19 case, according to his test results so far this year).
Due to the current state of his vision and mobility, I couldn’t do everything with my dad this month that we did together two years prior. Nonetheless, we managed to go out and celebrate Independence Day together. We went out and took care of his errands. My dad had already begun to get out of the house before he got vaccinated, but now he can do even more without fear of COVID-19 taking away all of his hard-fought progress over the last year and a half.
Whether we were grabbing some beer at the bar or picking up stamps and envelopes at the office supply store, it felt great to just do things with my dad again. No, we are still not “marked for eternal damnation”. No, our genetic code has not been rewritten. And no, we are not part of some “secret segregation society”. Yes, we are just happy to do more together and in person again.
“99.5% of deaths from COVID-19 in the United States were in unvaccinated people. Those deaths were preventable with a simple, safe shot.”
– CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, at the White House’s July 8 COVID-19 Briefing
At last Thursday’s White House COVID-19 Response Briefing, the Biden administration’s top public health advisors continued to shy away from Dr. Barbara Ferrer’s and some other medical experts’ recommendation of continued universal masking in public indoor spaces, they tried their best to make clearer than ever before that this latest resurgence in COVID-19 infections is so frustratingly avoidable. Or as White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients put it, “The sad reality is that despite our progress, we are still losing people to this virus. What makes this sadder is that this is completely unnecessary and preventable.”
A recent report in Nature on a peer-reviewed French study and a New England Journal of Medicine report on a recent American study both show the mRNA-based Pfizer-BioNTech and the adenoviral vector based Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines providing strong protection against the Delta variant after patients receive both vaccine doses. Last Thursday NIAID Director Dr. Anthony Fauci cited a separate British study that showed Pfizer as 79% effective against PCR-detected infection, 88% against symptomatic COVID-19 disease, and 96% against severe disease that would require hospitalization, and that same British study showed AstraZeneca as 60% effective against both PCR-detected infection and symptomatic disease, as well as 92% effective against severe disease requiring hospitalization.
In both additional good news and a corrections corner for our June 30 report, Fauci also pointed to direct and indirect evidence suggesting that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine may actually provide solid protection against the Delta variant after all. By contrast, the French study results that Nature published showed that the immune response from unvaccinated patients who previously survived COVID-19 (as in, natural immunity) was only about ¼ as potent against Delta as vaccine-induced immunity.
After Fauci presented the new British study results, he urged, “Please get vaccinated. It will protect you against the surging of the Delta variant.” And as CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky noted, “Low vaccination rates […] coupled with high case rates and lax mitigation policies that do not protect those who are unvaccinated from disease will certainly and sadly lead to more unnecessary suffering, hospitalizations, and potentially death. Preliminary data from several states over the last few months suggests that 99.5% of deaths from COVID-19 in the United States were in unvaccinated people. Those deaths were preventable with a simple, safe shot.”
Many of us have already declared our own personal “independence from the virus”, but here’s what America needs to actually break free from the COVID-19 pandemic.
To apply all of this to the classic “Rose and Thorn” dinner table game, the top rose of my last trip was going out and doing things with my dad again. Meanwhile, the sharpest thorn was watching Nevada’s COVID-19 outbreak spiral in the wrong direction all over again while I was gone. At times, I did feel guilty about enjoying time at the beach or a nice lunch out while noticing new infections and hospitalizations surge here at home.
As much as President Joe Biden and other elected leaders were hoping to use the July 4 holiday to “declare independence from the virus”, we’re just not there yet. However, this does not mean all is lost. The COVID-19 vaccines have thus far proven to be highly effective against Delta and other presently circulating variants, and these vaccines have given people like my dad and me a new lease on life.
As I write this now, I’m experiencing this awkward juxtaposition of figuring out one more potential summer trip out of town while watching Nevada’s COVID-19 outlook continue to deteriorate. I feel like I’ve begun to declare my own independence from the virus and “quarantine times”, yet I continue to watch my own state again fall deep into the grip of this terrifying disease.
What makes this even more frustrating is that we have the tools on hand to help more people declare their own independence from COVID-19. We can do this… If we actually decide to take this seriously, invest in the kind of vaccine outreach (both hyper-local and online) that stands the best chance at boosting our herd immunity levels, and remember that we are truly all in this together.
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.