Delivering a memorable line in the 1994 motion picture, “Forrest Gump,” Sally Field (as Mrs. Gump) gives motherly advice to her son, played by Tom Hanks. “Stupid is as stupid does,” she says comfortingly, a bromide turned ominous by COVID-19. Already America’s coronavirus cases top 22 million with 370,000 dead. Conservative models project U.S. fatalities will reach 560,000 by April. Sixty to one hundred thousand may die this January alone because of post-holiday surges. These totals, by far the world’s worst, were neither inevitable nor teleological. They happened because people ignored advice of scientists, the CDC and other medical advisers, who urged uniform wearing of masks, social distancing and avoidance of gatherings and long-distance travel. It may be unfair to call our morbidity “Trump’s Wall” as The Lincoln Project, composed of Republicans, has. But ill-preparedness and absence of national, overarching plans to contain and monitor the virus hastened its spread. Further compounding the tragedy have been deadly combinations of broken medical supply chains, weak enforcement of safety measures, inadequate testing, ambiguous and politicized messaging and a myopic connection between the economy and recklessness. Poor leadership is as poor leadership does.
Now, further delegation to states and lack of coordination is hampering the vaccine rollout. Twenty million shots were promised before the end of December. Only 6 million have been administered to date. Lags were predictable, of course, at least initially. But we’re the same country that balked at joining COVAX, rapaciously buying with Canada, the UK and other rich nations, the lion’s share of sera. Despite our vaccine avarice, it will take 1 ½ years, jabbing 500,000 Americans per day, to get a single dose into 80 percent of the population for herd immunity. Double-dose regimens, prescribed by clinical trials, will double the time. With millions of doses sitting on ice, meeting vaccine demand is less about backlogged supply than administrative failures, snafus caused by unrealistic planning and limited band width. We’re in a life or death track meet to inoculate, yet bottlenecks abound. To avoid spoilage, Pfizer and Moderna sera need storage at -94ºF and -4ºF, respectively, limiting distribution points. Hospitals, early epicenters for injections, are overwhelmed by COVID cases, and New York’s Gov. Cuomo is fining medical facilities that don’t use vaccine deliveries within a week. Meanwhile, many of our most vulnerable citizens can’t travel, and, astoundingly, 30 percent of healthcare workers (40 percent in nursing homes) exhibit “vaccine hesitancy,” even as new strains of SARS-CoV evolve. The latest highly contagious variant, forcing national lockdowns in Great Britain, is fast becoming the dominant strain.
This is the biggest public health emergency of our lifetimes. Federal and state governments need to pull out all the stops to get shots into people’s arms, mobilizing public and private sector organizations from the National Guard to American Red Cross.
Dr. Fauci, the WHO and other health officials insist on continuing the two-dose, 21-28 days apart, regimen on which clinical trials and 90-95% efficacies were based. That’s good science and practicable if everyone takes disease control measures earnestly during interim months to come. Too many Americans won’t, however, leading other scientists to infer tens of thousands of lives will be saved by deferring boosters and getting single doses of vaccine into as many arms as possible. Advocates conclude that would expedite herd immunity but confer a lower 80-90% protection factor. How deferring second doses beyond 28 days affects antibody production is unclear, but re-infections among patients recovering from COVID have been few and immune responses seem to last 3-4 months. Some medical professionals even suggest halving doses to inoculate the population faster. Given these debates, it’s galling that some politicians, neither seniors nor exhibiting risk factors, cut to the front of the line to get shots, allegedly vouching for safety. Maybe that’s the reason some men hid among women and children as they lowered the Titanic’s lifeboats.
Scott Deshefy is a biology and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.