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Stay afraid of COVID-19

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The rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine in the UK has the world teeming with excitement that the end of the pandemic is near. It isn’t, and we can’t afford to think or act this way.

The stunning statistics from last Wednesday  tell the story of a nation in near total denial. The coronavirus killed 2,760 people that day — the single highest daily death toll since the start of the pandemic. It was the same day COVID-19 hospitalizations exceeded 100,000, the highest level to date. Public health officials across the country are bracing for even higher numbers to come.

Eight months ago we were in a state of panic over COVID-19. States were issuing stay at home orders, and daily press conferences by some governors became must-see TV. Schools and offices closed, and bars and restaurants in many states were forced to shutter in a matter of days. We weren’t sure if it was safe to visit the local grocery store, or even venture out our front door for a walk through the neighborhood. 

Eight months ago we had a collective sense of fear over COVID-19. Many of us heeded the warnings of Dr. Anthony Fauci to stay home, wash our hands frequently, social distance and limit gathering sizes. Excursions from home were limited to purchasing food and essential needs. We stayed away from friends. 

Eight months ago the idea of wearing a mask to reduce the spread of a contagious virus was an entirely foreign concept in America. But when the measurable impact face coverings had in slowing the spread of COVID-19 became clear, many states required residents and businesses to use them. Thankfully, most Americans listened to the pleas of public health professionals and have been wearing masks in public since April.

Eight months ago, 2,752 people died on a single day from COVID-19. It was the single highest daily death toll on record. That is, until we exceeded it last week.    

Fauci has said the average American won’t be vaccinated until April 2021 (at the earliest). That’s months away. And the most recent news that the government passed on buying more doses of Pfizer’s vaccine suggests many in the U.S. will not have access to two doses of the vaccine until late summer. It will take months beyond that until enough people are vaccinated across the country to reach herd immunity. Some states, such as Connecticut, aren’t planning to start immunizing the general public until June 2021.

Our only hope of reducing the number of deaths from COVID-19 before a vaccine is readily available is to return to the same mindset we had, and the actions we took, last spring. We feared the virus then. We must fear it now.

As COVID-19 rages and spreads at its fastest pace since the start of the pandemic, we are letting our collective COVID-19 fatigue influence our behavior. Despite dire warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urging travelers to stay home for Thanksgiving, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) estimates nearly 10 million people flew in the days surrounding the recent holiday weekend. That is not a prescription for flattening the curve, but a sure way to overwhelm our already stretched health care system. 

At a time when we all need to practice strict preventative measures to reduce the spread of infection the most, Americans are accepting greater exposure risks than at any point since the start of the pandemic. It’s a recipe for disaster. 

Vigilance, not vaccines, is where the public focus should be. It’s the only thing entirely within our control that can arrest the spread of infection. President Trump said we shouldn’t “be afraid” of COVID-19 when he returned to the White House following treatment for his own diagnosis. To follow that advice would be wildly irresponsible at this critical stage. 

We can’t know when a COVID-19 vaccine will be available at our local doctor’s office. But we can affect the actions we take now that will save hundreds of thousands of American lives. 

It’s tempting to believe we are home free now that a vaccine is on the horizon, but the finish line is much farther away than we think. We must remain cautious and continue to follow public health guidelines to stop the spread of COVID-19 for the foreseeable future.

Lyndon Haviland, DrPH, MPH, is a distinguished scholar at the CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy.

Tags Anthony Fauci CDC guidelines Coronavirus coronavirus crisis coronavirus lockdowns coronavirus masks COVID-19 COVID-19 vaccines Donald Trump Social distancing

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