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Ending the COVID-19 pandemic through vaccinations

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our lives every single day for a year, and those disruptions have made fear, uncertainty, and fatigue a part of our daily experience. In spite of the many individual and collective sacrifices we’ve made, life hasn’t felt normal for quite some time. But, if we follow the advice of public health officials and take the right collective actions over the next few months, the end of the pandemic is within sight.

The two vaccines available to the public right now — manufactured by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna respectively — have proven remarkably effective at eliminating deaths, reducing hospitalizations and severe cases of illness, and limiting the spread of even mild or asymptomatic cases of the virus. During clinical trials, the vaccines were more than 90 percent effective at preventing any type of illness and 100 percent effective at eliminating severe cases and deaths, and those strong efficacy rates have continued during the public rollout. In addition, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been approved by the FDA and should be widely available by the end of March. In short, all of the COVID-19 vaccines are remarkably safe and effective, with minimal side effects, and they are the biggest reason why public health officials are optimistic about ending the pandemic sometime this summer.

The demand for vaccines outweighs the supply. Federal and state officials are working to coordinate the distribution of vaccines in a fair and equitable manner. So far, the vaccines have been prioritized to frontline workers and those most vulnerable to the virus, but vaccine eligibility is expanding in communities as more doses become available. In the last few weeks, the nation has doubled its dosing capacity; the number of vaccine doses being administered is now exceeding 2 million per day and continuing to climb. The approval of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will further increase that supply in the coming months.

Even though the pandemic has upended all of our lives, a significant percentage of the public remains skeptical of the benefits of a vaccine. A recent survey by the Associated Press reveals that nearly a third of Americans say they won’t or likely won’t receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Historically, vaccine skepticism is an issue that cuts across racial and socioeconomic divides in the United States, and that makes combatting it tricky for public health officials. The reality is this: vaccine skepticism is a social phenomenon, one unsupported by scientific fact or adverse health outcomes. The benefits of these COVID-19 vaccines, in particular, are overwhelming, and their effectiveness can only be undercut by our unwillingness to receive them.

In order to end the pandemic, we have to reach a broad level of population immunity from the virus, somewhere above 70 percent. The vaccines won’t get us there alone, but if we combine widespread vaccinations with the public health practices we’ve put into place over the past year, we will get there soon. That means continuing to wear masks in public, avoiding large social gatherings, especially indoors, and maintaining social distancing practices for the time being. In recent weeks, the combination of vaccinations and these social practices has dramatically reduced the rates of cases, hospitalizations and deaths across the country. If we embrace our responsibility to protect ourselves and each other as the vaccination program continues to ramp up, we will successfully suppress the virus and achieve that broad level of population immunity. A virus is only effective if it has hosts to spread it, and we can all but eliminate that possibility if we embrace our collective responsibility right now.

It has been difficult to maintain vigilance toward the virus of late, especially over the holidays and during these cold winter days in Pennsylvania. It may feel like public health officials have been urging you to stay patient and look for the light at the end of the tunnel for a while now. All of that may be true, but with the arrival of these safe and effective vaccines, we really are nearing a point where our lives can return to normal again soon.

Lisa Davis is director and outreach associate professor of health policy and administration for the Pennsylvania Office of Rural Health.

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