The news that the president and first lady have been diagnosed with COVID-19 should serve as a stark reminder that this pandemic isn’t going anywhere soon.
We’ve been living in a world with conflicting narratives about the scientific understanding of the coronavirus, and what the path forward is to prevent suffering and to save lives. People are understandably confused about what to believe. This confusion becomes all the more dangerous as we enter flu season and as the optimism about a vaccine might tempt the United States to let her guard down.
I was acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the dawn of the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, and we understood at the time that a full-blown pandemic as we’re experiencing today would be a marathon, not a sprint. This moment is an opportunity for our nation to bring clarity of mission and focus to a pandemic that should be apolitical. Here are five reasons why the finish line of the coronavirus pandemic is nowhere in sight, and why Americans and our government must remain vigilant:
1. A gold-standard vaccine isn’t a certainty. Vaccines vary in how protective they are and how much they reduce transmission. Whereas the smallpox vaccine and measles vaccine are more than 95% protective, the influenza vaccine — still the best way to reduce the risk of flu — some years reduces the risk by less than 50%. At this point we cannot be certain that there will be a vaccine, and even if there is, how effective it will be.
2. Cold weather and low humidity are the virus’ friends. The hope that the summer heat would cause the coronavirus to wilt never came to be. The U.S. experienced the opposite, in fact, as Americans began to relax, socialize and resume pre-pandemic life. These behaviors led to spikes across the Sun Belt and other parts of the country. As we now see infection levels decline in many of those former summer hot spots, we must remember that cold weather will drive us indoors, where close proximity makes spread more likely, and the change in weather keeps viruses in the air for longer periods of time.
President Donald Trump stands on stage with first lady Melania Trump after the first presidential debate with Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
3. Most Americans are still vulnerable to infection. Though this year might feel like a lifetime for many of us, the pandemic is still early in its lifecycle. The deaths of more than 200,000 people in this country is a weighty and tragic milestone, but it is not an indication that most people have been infected. CDC Director Robert Redfield asserted this past week that 90% of the U.S. population is still susceptible to the virus. This is an indication that the risk across the nation has not been significantly diminished.
4. America’s economic wounds will not heal soon. A public health emergency often becomes a one-two punch for the general population, with the medical concerns first and the economic fallout close behind. This pandemic illustrated that in a devastating way. And even today, the unemployment numbers show that the nation has only recovered about half of the 22 million jobs shed since spring. The disproportionate impact on people of color and low-income Americans — both in health outcomes and economic suffering — must drive any short- or long-term policy considerations.
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The Cares Act signed in late March that provided everything from food assistance to housing eviction moratoriums to unemployment assistance is running on fiscal fumes, and many of the supports have already expired or will expire by year’s end. In addition, the nation still needs support and funding for testing, for personal protective equipment and for basic health care services being taxed during a pandemic. The structural vulnerabilities that plagued too many communities before the pandemic need our attention during and after it. Every person in this country should be able to follow basic CDC guidelines should they become infected.
5. A vaccine for kids is at least a year away. As a parent and pediatrician, I understand the importance of getting children back into school. It’s vital in so many ways. And though we’ve seen that children fare much better with COVID-19 than adults, the threat of hospitalization and unknown complications down the road is real. Kids have also been shown to contribute to the spread of the virus, yet a vaccine suitable for children might not be available until fall of 2021, at the earliest.
With more than 70 million children in the U.S. who might not be inoculated in the next year, we must resist the temptation to let our guard down, whether in our schools, homes or communities. We must ensure that all schools have the resources to reduce the risk as much as possible for students, teachers and staff. Given that schools are largely funded by property taxes, we must allocate federal dollars so that all children have the opportunity to learn in a safe environment.
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Can we get to a place of common humanity in how we view one another and how we view all people’s needs and concerns? Can we use this defining moment of the pandemic to reset our thinking and our priorities so that the most vulnerable communities — Black, Latino and Native Americans, and low-income workers — have the support they need to survive this pandemic and thrive in its wake?
We should be grateful that we live in a country in which our leaders at the highest levels of government can receive the best care in times of crisis. And we should do all we can as a nation to ensure that every person in this country has the support they need, whether they live on Pennsylvania Avenue or Main Street, USA.
Dr. Richard E. Besser is president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton, N.J. Follow him on Twitter: @DrRichBesser
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: The fact that Donald Trump has COVID is sign pandemic isn’t going away