A new piece in the Atlantic sparked debate this week about the risk of ongoing COVID exposure to children as the country navigates toward the end of the pandemic. Brown University economist Emily Oster equated a child’s risk of serious illness from the coronavirus to that of their vaccinated grandmother. If grandma receives the Pfizer vaccine, her risk of serious illness is decreased by 95 percent. According to Oster, the condition of “being a child” aged 0-17 is 98 percent protective against hospitalization—so go ahead, plan that family summer vacation!
Oster cites no clinical or scientific experts in her piece, but some doctors were quick to respond that the comparisons are not equivalent (and also provide ready-made scripting for the “anti-vaxx” movement, which could claim that kids are already “basically vaccinated”).
But the article does bring up a real question that millions of families will soon face: what can we do when grandma and grandpa (and hopefully mom and dad) are vaccinated, but the kids are not? Given the pace of clinical trials, teens could be eligible for vaccination as soon as late summer, but COVID vaccines might not be approved for younger children until months later—and this generational vaccine divide will likely linger into 2022.
Undoubtedly children are at lower risk from COVID than adults, and likely transmit the disease less frequently (although much of the data supporting the latter comes from studies in schools, where social distancing and masking are enforced). And we’re not out of the woods yet: as COVID cases surge again in Michigan, schools there have seen a spike in outbreaks as well.
As families look at conflicting data and messages in the media, they need clear, coordinated guidance from state and federal officials to help them gauge safety as they navigate their second “pandemic summer”.
The former White House coronavirus response coordinator told CBS News’s “Face The Nation” that she saw Trump presenting graphs about the coronavirus that she did not help make. Someone inside or outside of the administration, she said, “was creating a parallel set of data and graphics that were shown to the president.”
Birx also said that there were people in the White House who believed the coronavirus was a hoax and that she was one of only two people in the White House who routinely wore masks.
Birx was often caught between criticism from Trump, who at one point called her “pathetic” on Twitter when she contradicted his more optimistic predictions for the virus, and critics in the scientific community who thought she did not do enough to combat false information about the virus from Trump, The Post’s Meryl Kornfield reports.
“Colleagues of mine that I’d known for decades — decades — in that one experience, because I was in the White House, decided that I had become this political person, even though they had known me forever,” she told CBS. “I had to ask myself every morning, ‘Is there something that I think I can do that would be helpful in responding to this pandemic?’ And it’s something I asked myself every night.”
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the New York Times that Trump repeatedly tried to minimize the severity of the virus and would often chide him for not being positive enough in his statements about the virus.
Fauci also described facing death threats as he was increasingly vilified by the president’s supporters. “One day I got a letter in the mail, I opened it up and a puff of powder came all over my face and my chest,” he said. The powder turned out to be benign.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Monday that 2.1 million doses of coronavirus vaccines have been administered in two weeks. While this might sound like an impressive number, it should set off alarms.
Let’s start with the math. Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious-disease doctor, estimates that 80 to 85 percent of Americans need to be vaccinated to reach herd immunity. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses. Eighty percent of the American population is around 264 million people, so we need to administer 528 million doses to achieve herd immunity.
At the current rate, it would take the United States approximately 10 years to reach that level of inoculation. That’s right — 10 years. Contrast that with the Trump administration’s rosy projections: Earlier this month, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar predicted that every American will be able to get the vaccine by the second quarter of 2021 (which would be the end of June). The speed needed to do that is 3.5 million vaccinations a day.
There’s reason to believe the administration won’t be able to ramp up vaccination rates anywhere close to those levels. Yes, as vaccine production increases, more will be available to the states. And Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health at HHS, argued on Sunday that the 2.1 million administered vaccines figure was an underestimate due to delayed reporting. So let’s be generous and say the administration actually administered 4 million doses over the first two weeks.
But even that would still fall far short of the 3.5 million vaccinations needed per day. In fact, it falls far short of what the administration had promised to accomplish by the end of 2020 — enough doses for 20 million people. And remember, the first group of vaccinations was supposed to be the easiest: It’s hospitals and nursing homes inoculating their own workers and residents. If we can’t get this right, it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the country.
Here’s what concerns me most: Instead of identifying barriers to meeting the goal, officials are backtracking on their promises. When states learned they would receive fewer doses than they had been told, the administration said its end-of-year goal was not for vaccinations but vaccine distribution. It also halved the number of doses that would be available to people, from 40 million to 20 million. (Perhaps they hoped no one would notice that their initial pledge was to vaccinate 20 million people, which is 40 million doses, or that President Trump had at one point vowed to have 100 million doses by the end of the year.) And there’s more fancy wordplay that’s cause for concern: Instead of vaccine distribution, the administration promises “allocation” in December. Actual delivery for millions of doses wouldn’t take place until January, to say nothing of the logistics of vaccine administration.
The vaccine rollout is giving me flashbacks to the administration’s testing debacle. Think back to all the times Trump pledged that “everyone who wants a test can get one.” Every time this was fact-checked, it came up false. Instead of admitting that there wasn’t enough testing, administration officials followed a playbook to confuse and obfuscate: They first attempted to play up the number of tests done. Just like 2 million vaccines in two weeks, 1 million tests a week looked good on paper — until they were compared to the 30 million a day that some experts say are needed. The administration then tried to justify why more tests weren’t needed. Remember Trump saying that “tests create cases” or the CDC issuing nonsensical testing guidance?
When that didn’t work, Trump officials deflected blame to the states. Never mind that there should have been a national strategy or that states didn’t have the resources to ramp up testing on their own. It was easier to find excuses than to admit that they were falling short and do the hard work to remedy it.
Instead of muddying the waters, the federal government needs to take three urgent steps. First, set up a real-time public dashboard to track vaccine distribution. The public needs to know exactly how many doses are being delivered, distributed and administered. Transparency will help hold the right officials accountable, as well as target additional resources where they are most needed.
Second, publicize the plan for how vaccination will scale up so dramatically. States have submitted their individual plans to the CDC, but we need to see a national strategy that sets ambitious but realistic goals.
Third, acknowledge the challenges and end the defensiveness. The public will understand if initial goals need to be revised, but there must be willingness to learn from missteps and immediately course-correct.
I remain optimistic that vaccines will one day end this horrific pandemic that has taken far too many lives. To get there, we must approach the next several months with urgency, transparency and humility.