Responding to

"The difference between fiction and reality?
Fiction has to make sense."

Tom Clancy
When we look at the stars, for example Proxima Centauri, the closest star to Earth, what we see is not what exists today but what existed more than four years ago. That's about how long it takes for the star's light to reach Earth.

This latency, the lag time between when light leaves a star and when it reaches our eyes, is the same thing that makes understanding what's happening with the coronavirus so difficult. There's a delay between today's pandemic data and the reality of how many people are now actually infected with the virus. This lag also makes it tough to know with any certainty if the pandemic will actually end by autumn because of the rollout of vaccinations (as some experts predict).

COVID-19 case and test data are a window, but not to the future. They're a window to the recent past, just like a star's light. Here's why. Typically, patients don't develop their first COVID-19 symptom until four or five days after they become infected. Add another day or two to get tested. Then add another day for the lab to run the test and then several more for the lab to report the results to the state. Finally, add a few more days for the state to publish the data. That means that today's data reflect the reality from nearly two weeks ago.

The latency doesn't apply only to bad news, however. And lately, the news has been pretty good. In the past week, the average number of new cases per day has been falling in many states. Hospitalizations, a better measure of spread since not everyone who's infected becomes symptomatic, are also falling in much of the country. In addition, the speed of vaccinations is increasing. As of late last week, more than 35 million vaccinations were administered in the US, averaging 1.3 million shots per day. In New Mexico, the rate of vaccination (people who've received at least one dose) is close to 14% with three percent of the population fully vaccinated. Keep in mind these aren't real time data points, they're the recent past.

Tempering the positive news, the more transmissible B117 strain of the virus (that's the UK variant) is becoming more prevalent in the US. Early evidence suggests that it impacts young people and women more than the dominant strains do. Kristian Andersen, an immunology professor at Scripps Research, believes the variant will eventually dominate the US. “It’s not an if, it’s a when.” And so, the race is on to get enough people vaccinated. With sufficient herd immunity other, potentially more virulent, strains of the virus can't take hold. As Professor Andersen observed, “The virus is moving faster than the vaccines right now.”

Still, it's not all doom and gloom. Within six weeks, regardless of what Punxsutawney Phil predicts, the weather will improve across much of the country. We'll be able to gather outside again, lessening the temptation of riskier indoor gatherings. With days getting longer, more of the sun’s virus-killing Ultraviolet rays will reach the Earth’s surface. And, most importantly, more and more people will be vaccinated, depriving the virus of susceptible hosts.
Keeping track of all of the vaccines that are being developed or are in use around the world can be a full-time job and it seems to be turning some of us into amateur scientists.

Johnson & Johnson's vaccine will likely receive emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration later this this month, meaning there will be three vaccines approved for use in the US. The single-dose vaccine is 66% effective in preventing moderate to severe disease, according to a global study. And, because it requires only a single dose and is more easily stored than either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, it will likely become the vaccine of choice for more rural parts of the country.

Confidence in the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca vaccine seems to be growing. New analysis released last week suggests that not only does the vaccine protect against symptomatic COVID-19 infections, it could also significantly curb transmission. The vaccine has been approved in Britain, India, and Europe, as well as other countries. But the company has not yet submitted its application for use in this country, as the vaccine is still undergoing late-stage trials.

Finally, Novavax’s vaccine achieved 89.3% efficacy in a Phase 3 clinical trial that used subjects exposed to the B117 variant. However, the vaccine performed far worse in a smaller trial that tested it against the South Africa variant.

The federal government is also working to expand the vaccine supply, increasing its weekly distribution to states and tribes while working to secure more doses from manufacturers. Additionally, private retail pharmacies will begin receiving limited vaccine allotments later this week in an effort to expand outreach to priority groups. Vaccinations will continue to be available at no cost. The CDC worked with states to select initial pharmacy partners based on a number of factors including the pharmacies' ability to reach some of the populations most at risk.

If the vaccine rollout seems chaotic and confusing, though, that's because it is. David Leonhardt of The New York Times writes, "A common problem seems to be a focus on process rather than on getting shots into arms. Some leaders are effectively sacrificing efficiency for what they consider to be equity. Some states have also created intricate rules about who qualifies for a vaccine and then made a big effort to keep anybody else from getting a shot."

Even with all the messiness around getting vaccines into people, we're certainly on our way to bringing the pandemic to an end. But we're not there yet. And it's during this "in-between time" that remaining vigilant seems so tough. It's especially tough for folks who are anxious to be vaccinated but who must still wait. Remember, if you've been vaccinated, you still need to wear a face mask, keep your distance from others, avoid large gatherings, and wash your hands. We still need to protect each other.

Thank you for all that you're doing to stay safe and healthy.

I am forever grateful for all that you do.
Thank you for your vigilance. We want you to stay safe,
healthy, and informed.