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Wack: Belated coordinated response making progress against COVID, but we’re still in a deep hole | COMMENTARY

Our long, dark days are brighter every morning, and the end of our pandemic torment draws closer. Finally, we have the beginnings of a coordinated response, which, though still imperfect and incomplete, is making significant progress bringing COVID-19 under control. However, the work is not finished yet, and reaching the light at the end of this tunnel of pain we need to stay focused in these final stages.

First, all the good news. The vaccines are working, and production is rapidly ramping up to provide sufficient vaccine to cover all of us within months. The challenge now is the logistics of distribution and administration, which we’ve seen aren’t optimal yet. Still, the vaccines administered so far appear to already be decreasing new cases and deaths.

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The vaccines are proving to be extremely safe. We’re now in the range of tens of millions, soon to be hundreds of millions of doses administered, and there are no significant patterns of serious adverse reactions. The biggest effect people report is the blah feeling on the second day after the second dose. This is actually a positive thing, evidence that the immune system is properly stimulated to mount a strong response.

We also have more reliable data about the effectiveness of masks, fresh air circulation, and distancing to slow and prevent the spread of the virus, even the newer highly contagious variants. We could have prevented a lot of deaths, like many other countries, had we adopted these measures sooner and more comprehensively, without all the disinformation and selfish drama.

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Another bright spot from the last year is that influenza illness was almost non-existent, likely due to the distancing and masking that did occur. That prevented the nightmare scenario dreaded by health experts of simultaneous respiratory virus pandemics. It also definitively refuted the lie that COVID-19 is “just the flu.”

Last, our county should be commended once again for excellent mask and distancing compliance, which resulted in relatively low case numbers. Our health department did great work reaching out to vulnerable populations and keeping the public informed.

Now the bad news. We are still in a very deep hole created by the incompetent, dysfunctional, and dishonest actions of federal officials in 2020. The CDC was crippled by political purges and the exodus of top talent, and it will take a long time to repair the damage, to that agency and others. Rebuilding lost credibility may take years.

The misguided, ineffective, and ultimately harmful plan to leave most of the pandemic response to states and counties was a colossal mistake.

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The one bright spot from last year, Operation Warp Speed to accelerate the final development and production of vaccines, was the exact opposite of that kind of approach. It was centralized, heavy handed, compelled coordination and cooperation across multiple agencies and the private sector, and was fueled by the open checkbook of unconstrained federal spending. It is a perfect example of the positive good big government can yield when properly managed, and was a glaring anomaly in the otherwise chaotic and incompetent federal approach last year.

We are now only beginning to reckon with the economic impact of the pandemic. Thanks to Democratic control of all three branches of government, effective financial relief is imminent, although the fights over that will continue, thanks to newfound Republican interest in fiscal austerity, oddly absent over the last four years. That opposition will likely prove ineffective, and solid majorities of Americans wholeheartedly agree with current plans to support families and businesses.

Disinformation, especially about the COVID vaccines, remains a challenge. Thoroughly debunked rumors about infertility, altering DNA, or the vaccine actually giving you COVID-19 still circulate on social media, causing vaccine hesitancy. COVID-denial disinformation still circulates. If the deaths of over half a million Americans won’t convince the deniers, nothing will.

The emergence of the more contagious variants, though fully expected, is not welcome news. However, so far they do not appear to cause more serious disease, and the vaccines still appear to be effective against them. This is why even though vaccination is going well, we still need to continue masking and distancing until we drive this into the ground.

A quote popularly, and likely incorrectly, attributed to Winston Churchill, states: “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing, only after they’ve tried everything else.” We’ve spent a year trying everything else. We now know the right things to do. Let’s finish out by continuing to mask up, keep your distance, get your vaccines, and spend more time outdoors with family and friends, and we’ll be heading back to normal sooner every day.

Dr. Robert Wack writes from Westminster. He can be reached at Robert.p.wack@gmail.com.

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