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COVID-19 loves a celebration and hates a vaccine

Bonnie Cash

No matter the purpose of a large gathering, it is impossible to identify, isolate properly, and contact-trace a highly transmissible virus like this one. Even if we had enough rapid tests to provide point-of-care testing onsite, and if everyone wore a mask and tried to distance, it wouldn’t be sufficient. 

What we need desperately is a vaccine, which could be almost in hand, according to Pfizer. 

It concerned me to see the crowds attending President Trump’s rallies in the final days of his campaign. This made him an easy target for criticism from his opponents. 

Yet, there they were again in the wake of the Biden/Harris victory on Saturday, cheering crowds in cities across the country. And there was Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) calling for a national mask mandate and promising to send national guardsmen to airports to enforce his latest travel restrictions while, at the very same time, the NYPD was issuing a travel advisory — “due to large crowds, avoid the area of Times Square.”

You can’t have it both ways: you’re either committed to public health measures or aren’t. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), a  big critic of Trump’s coronavirus response, said at the end of October: “More people are in hospitals, more people are dying … we’re sitting on our hands and that’s because Donald Trump is … such a moron.” Yet, this same Sen. Schumer sat without a mask in a limousine in Brooklyn on Saturday, holding his cell phone up to a crowd through the open window so that Joe Biden could hear the shouts and cheers.  

President-elect Biden is proposing a national mask mandate, too, and says he will speak to state governors about it and, if they balk, then to mayors and local officials. This would encounter great resistance, though there is evidence that mask mandates have a value when used properly. Most recently, a study at Vanderbilt Medical Center in Tennessee revealed a much lower rate of hospitalizations in counties across that state where mask mandates were in place for at least 75 percent of the population, versus counties where only 25 percent were compelled to wear masks. But Tennessee is in the midst of a surge of COVID-19 cases. People may be more inclined to resist mask-wearing in areas where there is no COVID-19. And, in the Vanderbilt study, it may well have been the increased safeguarding tendencies among mask-wearers that led to fewer hospitalizations, rather than to the masks themselves.   

Controlling the spread of COVID-19 has garnered discussions and disagreements in the scientific community about the exact value of masks and when to wear them, about how many times a day to wash or disinfect your hands. But one thing that almost all public health officials agree on is the fundamental need to keep a distance from one another and avoid crowds. It makes scientific sense. If infected people are huddling or shouting close together, a porous cloth mask alone won’t protect you or those around you sufficiently — whether it is a pre-election rally or a post-election celebration.  

We don’t need a more punitive mandate-enacting pandemic bureaucracy. Instead, we need to instill confidence and personal responsibility in our citizens by being more consistent and compassionate. If President-elect Biden wants to take up the mantle of leadership right away and help unify our country, he should begin by denouncing the very crowds forming around the country to celebrate his victory. Public health and the power of science need to trump partisan politics every time. 

The power of science may be arriving just in time to alter the disease’s trajectory and public non-compliance with masks. Even if the masses on both sides of the political divide continue to defy science in favor of large gatherings, it looks like we will have just the tool we need to protect ourselves very soon. The new BioNTech/Pfizer Messenger RNA vaccine has just cleared a major hurdle: Last stage clinical trials in the U.S. of 44,000 patients revealed that, of 94 who tested positive for COVID-19 and had at least one symptom, fewer than nine had received the vaccine. The vaccine showed greater than 90 percent effectiveness at decreasing or preventing symptoms. The vaccine showed greater than 90 percent effectiveness in preventing disease. 

The Messenger RNA vaccines signal a recipient’s cells to make the “spike” protein found on the virus’s surface. This triggers your immune system to target this protein with antibodies and T cells. This way, you are already protected against the virus if you encounter it.

To give you an idea of how important this is, while the flu vaccine varies from approximately 30 to 60 percent effectiveness year to year, the measles vaccine is 97 percent effective at preventing infection. Measles is far more easily transmissible than COVID-19, and yet, with the help of this powerhouse vaccine, we have managed to stamp out native measles in the U.S.

COVID-19 is next. And given how rapidly this has been accomplished, with the help of new vaccine science, this may well end up being “a great day for science and humanity,” as the CEO of Pfizer said. The next big challenge is to convince the thronging crowds to take it. 

Once again, however, Cuomo is putting politics ahead of public health when he says it is “bad news” that Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine came during the Trump administration and that he is going to work with other governors shape or even stop distribution “before it does damage.”

The politics of fear is exactly what we don’t need when it comes to a historic vaccine. It might erode vaccine compliance at the worst possible time.

Marc Siegel, M.D., is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Health. He is a Fox News medical correspondent.

Tags Andrew Cuomo Chuck Schumer COVID-19 vaccine Donald Trump Influenza vaccine Joe Biden measles vaccine Pfizer

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