Responding to

"The great virtue in life is real courage that knows how to face facts
and live beyond them.” 
DH Lawrence
We're still in the midst of a pandemic, although some would like to believe we're not.

The governors of Texas and Mississippi both announced they are lifting their mask mandates and allowing businesses to operate at full capacity. They follow governors from Iowa and Montana, who did so in February. Additionally, Massachusetts removed capacity limits on restaurants and South Carolina will allow gatherings of more than 250 people.

We all want to get back to a normal life. And many medical experts believe that the country has actually been too slow to restart some activities, like outdoor socializing and in-person school (with precautions). The emotional and economic costs of an unending shutdown may outweigh the reducing risk of COVID transmission. But there is still risk and each choice we make carries a risk that has to be considered. Public health experts warn that many of the eased restrictions represent a rushed return to normalcy, rather than a careful weighing of costs and benefits. “I know people are tired. They want to get back to life, to normal,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, said last week. “But we’re not there yet. At this level of cases, with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained.”

Dr. Walensky is referring to a slowing in the decline of new COVID-19 cases. No one yet knows if this is due to the spread of new virus variants or if something else is happening. In parts of the U.S., the average daily number of cases is beginning to inch higher, leading to concerns that we'll see another surge.

The competing guidance leaves many of us wondering whether we should follow the lure of optimism, as some officials in other states continue to endorse widespread reopenings, or if we should heed the warnings of federal health officials who have said it is premature to lift too many limits. Researchers at the CDC released findings last Friday from a study on the importance of face coverings, reporting that mask-wearing mandates were linked to fewer infections with the coronavirus and COVID-19 deaths in counties across the United States. The researchers also found that counties opening restaurants for on-premises dining, both indoors or outdoors, saw a rise in daily infections about six weeks later, and an increase in COVID-19 death rates about two months after that. Although the restaurant industry criticized the report, citing variables that hadn't been taken into account, the news adds to the tug-of-war between caution and a return to "normal."

And the news from Brazil may give people some additional cause to reevaluate their choices. We've been hearing for some time that the country is battling a more contagious variant of the coronavirus, even as many in that country forego precautionary measures. With the Brazilian variant, known as P.1, even people who've recovered from a COVID-19 infection may still be at risk. Vaccination appears to be the key. “You need vaccines to get in the way of these things,” commented William Hanage, an epidemiologist at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The variant has already been found in Oregon, Florida, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Alaska, and Maryland.

We don't need to give up hope. We simply need to be patient at a time when our patience is pretty well tapped out.
With a third vaccine now in distribution, people shouldn't have to be patient too much longer. At least not for the vaccine. Still, some people seem concerned that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is inferior to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Since it has a lower effectiveness, they think the vaccine won't work as well. That's not the case, according to the experts. The vaccine is nearly 100 percent effective at preventing serious illness.

Why didn't the J&J vaccine test as well against milder cases of COVID-19 as the other vaccines? David Leonhardt, of The New York Times, explains that J&J's research trials occurred later than Moderna’s or Pfizer’s, after one of the virus variants had spread more widely. That variant appears to cause a greater number of mild COVID cases among vaccinated people than the original virus.

Some people are also concerned that the J&J vaccine requires only a single shot, meaning the vaccine won't be a potent. According to the data, however, that's because the vaccine is strong enough that it doesn't require a booster. Dr. Robert Wachter, chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, assures us, "after any of the three vaccines, there’s essentially no chance you will die of COVID, which is breathtaking.”

With more than 625,000 doses of vaccine given in New Mexico as of last Thursday, (82 million nationwide), the list of questions of what vaccinated people can do continues to grow. Dr. William Schaffner, professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, notes that the questions are becoming more nuanced and complex as the subtleties of situations change. "[People] ask if it's OK to hug their grandkids now? Can they play cards with their vaccinated friends? Can they host a small indoor dinner party, but should they forget to invite Uncle Frank who has been unmasked at the bar a lot?"

In an effort to try to address these questions, the CDC is working on guidelines for fully vaccinated people to follow. Although their guidance won't give permission to start living like it's 2019 again, it will offer some hope that the end of total social isolation is near. The guidance will include recommendations that those of us who've been vaccinated limit our social interactions to small gatherings in the home with other fully vaccinated individuals, wear masks in public, and adhere to other public health measures such as physical distancing for the foreseeable future. "The advice is likely to disappoint many who hoped the increasing pace of inoculations would allow some common restrictions to be relaxed immediately for vaccinated people," suggests Erin Banco who writes for Politico. The guidance will include scenarios for people to consider, including where we socialize, with whom we can socialize, and what to consider when making plans. It will also include a section on travel. "We can't predict every situation that human beings will be in," a CDC official explained. "What we can do is give principles for people to think through . . . and then they can choose what level of risk they wish to take."

So, it seems that finding our comfort with the COVID risks we're willing to take will likely be the case for much, if not all, of 2021.

Please continue to do everything you can to keep yourself and those around you safe and healthy.

In gratitude for all that you do.
Thank you for your vigilance. We want you to stay safe,
healthy, and informed.