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CDC’s director is wrong — COVID doom is not nigh        

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Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is an extremely knowledgeable, renowned infectious disease specialist. The former chief of the infectious diseases division at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, she is a straightforward scientist and intuitive physician.

So there was no reason for me to disbelieve her, or to think she was invoking the politics of fear, when she said she felt a sense of “impending doom” regarding COVID-19 and that she is “scared.” She was referring to the uptick of COVID-19 cases in the U.S in the past week, the increasing spread of more contagious — and more virulent — variants, as well as the death rate remaining over 1,000 per day. She also was no doubt too well aware of the new European lockdowns and the eruption of cases in Brazil where the P1 variant has been spreading.

But we have the same tool in our arsenal that Israel and the United Kingdom have used so effectively, the same tool that most other countries lack — namely, an increasingly available vaccine. A vaccine to slay our viral enemy, to defang all these variants, to place us securely on the road to recovery. So why doesn’t Dr. Walensky see it this way? Why isn’t she reassured by Texas, with a continued decrease in cases and hospitalizations despite fully opened businesses and the discontinuation of a masking mandate by Gov. Greg Abbott (R)? Or reassured by Los Angeles County, where only one death from COVID-19 was reported on March 28?

Why not focus on the UK, which is ahead of us in vaccines, with England vaccinating more than 87 percent of those over the age of 50; zero COVID-19 deaths were reported in London on Monday. Here in the U.S., more than 70 percent of those over the age of 65 have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and the number of hospitalizations and deaths among the elderly are both dropping; nursing home cases are down 96 percent. Today’s Pfizer’s astounding announcement that in 2,260 teens studied the vaccine was 100 percent effective at preventing infection was a big step in the direction of herd immunity provided we can achieve substantial compliance.

So why does the CDC director say she is scared? I suspect it is because cases and hospitalizations are up in New York and New Jersey, where the UK B117 variant and our own B1526 variant are spreading, and in Michigan, where the vaccination program clearly is not keeping pace with the easily transmissible and more virulent B117 variant, even though the vaccines are effective against it. 

It is, undoubtedly, part of the CDC director’s job to look at worst-case scenarios, though I do not believe she is doing so deliberately to “scare” more people into taking the vaccine. In fact, the latest Kaiser Family Foundation poll shows that vaccine compliance is rising, with 62 percent saying that they either have had the vaccine or can’t wait to get it. With the Biden administration on track to have more than enough vaccines for all eligible Americans by summer, I and many others see a path out of the pandemic.

These vaccines are so effective that they alone are powerful enough to create sufficient population immunity to slow the virus to a crawl — provided that enough of us take them.

So the CDC director is likely to be proven wrong in her fears, as long as we message properly regarding the vaccine. But this messaging must not come only from politicians or even public health officials but from our peers, from doctors to patients, from church leaders to their congregations.

In the meantime, I would urge against further fear-messaging. It creates division and worry, and could even lead to further head-in-the-sand noncompliance. Instead, we must do our best to keep wearing our masks in close quarters and to be kind to each other. Kindness helps build community spirit, whereas divisiveness and dogma does the opposite. 

“Take the vaccine,” I tell all my patients. “It is highly effective and completely safe, but the virus isn’t.”

Author Vladimir Nabokov’s famous words from his autobiography, “Speak Memory,” seem uncannily suited to this pandemic: “Doom is nigh. I am in acute distress, desperately trying to coax sleep, opening my eyes every few seconds to check their faded gleam, and imagining paradise as a place where a sleepless neighbor reads an endless book by the light of an eternal candle.” 

A message to the CDC director: Doom is not impending, it is not nigh. We can and will slay today’s viral dragon.

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 and author of the new book, “COVID: the Politics of Fear and the Power of Science.”

Tags Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Coronavirus COVID-19 Rochelle Walensky Vaccination

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