My every-morning, half-awake news scroll is a Groundhog Day of doom and gloom.
(It’s also, for sure, the worst way to start your day. Why do we all still do this?)
COVID-19 cases are surging, more schools are closing, forget Thanksgiving and Christmas, and by the way, Mardi Gras is canceled, too. The end is nigh, and onward … and downward.
It’s enough to make me want to roll over and hibernate through winter.
But now? A glimmer of good news.
The vaccines are coming, and they’re coming sooner than we thought.
First, it was Pfizer, and news last week of a 90% effective vaccine.
Then, on Monday, Moderna came along with its 94.5% percent effective vaccine — a figure Dr. Fauci himself called “outstanding.”
And today? Pfizer was back to say that upon even more math, their vaccine is actually 95% effective. So there! (The one-upping sent Twitter into joke mode. My favorite is below.)
The better news: If the pharma companies can get emergency authorization from the FDA, we could start vaccinations this year. For sure, we’d begin with frontline workers and those most at risk, in a yet-to-be-determined hierarchy. But still … this year! 2020! The godforsaken year that whence passed we shan’t speak of again. That year.
It’s really happening. Can you believe it?
Because my capacity for joy has been beaten out of me, I text with my best girlfriends, including one who has three kids and is mired in virtual schooling, to see if they’re excited or suspicious like me.
Away we went down the rabbit hole, talking timelines and mRNA and why the heck Pfizer’s vaccine needs to be kept colder than Antarctica. (Because it’s fragile, like chocolate that can melt, according to NPR.)
They were unsure. One imagined we’d also split into teams — “Oh, you got the Moderna vaccine? We went with Pfizer…” — because of course we’ll still find a way to be divisive and ungrateful, won’t we?
Then I turned to CNN, where Sanjay Gupta seemed on the verge of exuberance. Fifty percent efficacy would’ve potentially been accepted by the FDA, he said. But 95%?
“If it all works, guys, we’re talking about, for the first time ever, people outside the clinical trial receiving a coronavirus vaccine before Christmas,” he said breathlessly.
And Moderna’s chief medical officer called hearing the efficacy results “one of the greatest moments of his life.”
Me? I’m not ready to join the party. And so I called my most guaranteed bastion of pessimism — my mother.
“It’s exciting,” she said, sounding, well, upbeat. “There’s going to be an end. If we can just make it through and stay healthy until the vaccine, then we can all go on with our lives. It feels like a get out of jail free card.”
But I’m right to hold off on celebrating, says Dr. Stephanie Silvera, an epidemiologist and professor of public health at Montclair State University.
“Yes, this is good news,” she says. “But don’t throw away your mask yet.”
She credits immunologists, virologists and other researchers for the speed at which they worked to get here. But manufacturing, distribution, storage? These are all hurdles we’ll have to jump.
We also don’t know how the vaccine will affect children, since trials participants are adults, she says. So those hopes about all schools reopening? Don’t hold your breath, parents.
Then, there’s the question of how many people actually will want to get vaccinated. I think about the poll this week that says 4 in 10 New Jerseyans plan to skip the vaccine.
“We have people who don’t believe in current vaccines that have been around for decades,” Silvera says. “A new vaccine, where there has already been significant mistrust for whatever reasons? I can see it being a tough sell.”
Her caution is echoed by Dr. Carl Goldstein, clinical professor of medicine at Rutgers-Robert Wood Johnson medical school, who says none of us should expect life to return to normal anytime in the immediate future.
“The challenge is going to be once these vaccines are approved, then it will be incumbent on the Biden administration to have a plan, which I believe they’ve got, for not only supporting the manufacturers of the vaccines but for transportation and distribution,” he says.
Vaccines generally need to be refrigerated, so this deep freeze requirement is not typical, Goldstein says.
“The army doesn’t have a fleet of freezer trucks, so there’s a logistic thing that needs to be solved,” he says. “And by the time the vaccine is manufactured, distributed, administered and then generally available to all persons interested in being vaccinated, reasonably speaking, that’s deep into next year.”
He adds that we have yet to learn if the many vaccines that will be made against COVID-19 will be equivalent, or if some will be better for kids or older adults or more long-lasting than others. Will it be like the flu where you need to get a shot every year? We don’t know yet.
Also, he cautions, we need to remember that both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines require two doses — “the first is when you wake the immune system up, and then you wake it up a second time to get adequate antibody response to confer immunity” — so production numbers (Moderna estimates 20 million doses before the end of the year; Pfizer, 50 million) aren’t a one-for-one on how many can be vaccinated.
“People who are thinking as soon as there’s a vaccine, I can take my mask off, go to the gym and go out to dinner afterwards … I don’t think that’s what we’re going to see,” he says. “The responsible message is be hopeful, be optimistic, but do not be impatient.”
And as to my jadedness at what appears to be a positive development?
Well, that’s no good either, says Dr. Anthony Tasso, a clinical psychologist and deputy director of the School of Psychology and Counseling at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
“For sure, anybody who was prone to having rose colored glasses left them back in early 2020,” he says. “But we’ve got to be hopeful. I keep telling people there has been nothing, nothing in the history of the world, that has been researched the way this has. The optimistic part of me holds on to that.”
And that optimism has borne fruit in the vaccine news. So why not, dare we, indulge in some good feelings about it all, he encourages.
“It’s understandable that, especially in this year, people would approach any hint of hope with suspicion. And yes, the healthiest approach is cautious optimism,” he says. “But still, we shouldn’t disregard good news.”
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Jessica Remo may be reached at [email protected].