It seems pretty clear the path the United States is on. Within a few months, everyone who wants to be vaccinated against the coronavirus will be, save for those below the minimum age for which vaccines are available.For everyone else, the pandemic Wild West will continue, with the country hopefully somewhere near the level of immunity that will keep the virus from spreading wildly but with large parts of the population — again, including kids — susceptible to infection.
That really gets at one of the two outstanding questions: How many Americans won’t get the vaccine? If the figure is fairly low, the ability of the virus to spread will be far lower. If it’s high, we have a problem. And that’s the other outstanding question: How big of a problem will the virus be, moving forward?
We know that even as vaccines are being rolled out, cases are slowly climbing. While the number of new infections recorded each day is well off the highs seen in the winter, we’re still averaging more cases on a daily basis than we saw even a month into the third wave that began in September. A lot of people are still getting sick, and, even with most elderly Americans now protected with vaccine, a lot more people will probably die.
Data released by Gallup this week shows that both of the questions posed above share a common component. It is, as you probably suspected, those who are least willing to get vaccinated who are also least likely to take steps to contain the virus.
Gallup asked Americans about their vaccination status, finding that about a fifth had been fully vaccinated and an additional 13 percent partially vaccinated. More than a quarter of respondents, though, said they didn’t plan to get vaccinated. It was those in that latter group who were least likely to say that they were completely or mostly isolating in an effort to prevent the virus spreading.
It was also those skeptics who were least likely to say that, in the past seven days, they had avoided crowds, group gatherings or travel. If you’re not inclined to get vaccinated, it is at least consistent that you would be similarly disinclined to take other steps aimed at limiting the spread of the virus.
Gallup didn’t break out those groups by party, but it’s clear that few of them are Democrats. Data from YouGov, compiled on behalf of Yahoo News, shows that Democrats (and those who voted for Joe Biden in particular) are more likely to say that they have already received a vaccine dose.
Among those who hadn’t yet received a dose, Democrats were far more likely to indicate that they planned to do so as soon as possible. Among Republicans, half of those who haven’t been vaccinated say that they don’t have any plans to do so at all.
One reason is that Republicans are simply less worried about the virus. More than half say that they’re not very worried about it or not worried at all. Among those who voted for Donald Trump, the figure is over two-thirds. By contrast, more than three-quarters of Democrats say that they are at least somewhat worried about the virus.
In the YouGov polling, 60 percent of Republicans say that the worst of the pandemic is behind us. They’re also much more likely to say that restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of the virus — mask mandates, limits on indoor dining — should be lifted immediately.
As we mentioned Thursday, there are two ways to achieve herd immunity.One is fast and safe:widespread vaccinations. The other — people contracting the virus — is slow and dangerous. The path the United States is on will take us to a place where much of the country has opted for the first option and the rest, the latter.
So the question again becomes: How many people will die, both over the short term and the long term, as a result of those choices?
Two members of Congress from Massachusetts have tested positive for the coronavirus, one after receiving both doses of the vaccine, a reminder that people can still be vulnerable to infection after being vaccinated, particularly in the two weeks after receiving the second dose.
Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.) tested positive for the virus on Friday afternoon after a staff member in his Boston office tested positive earlier in the week, his spokeswoman Molly Rose Tarpey said.
Lynch received a second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine before the inauguration of President Biden on Jan. 20, but his office declined to specify the date it was administered. Lynch had tested negative for the virus before attending the inaugural ceremonies, Tarpey said.
“While Mr. Lynch remains asymptomatic and feels fine, he will self-quarantine and will vote by proxy in Congress during the coming week,” she said.
Tarpey added that Lynch “has followed CDC guidelines and continues to do so since he received the vaccine.”
Another Democrat from Massachusetts, Rep. Lori Trahan,announced Thursday that she had tested positive for the virus and was asymptomatic. Trahan, whose staff members have been working remotely, also said she planned to vote by proxy next week.
“I encourage everyone to continue taking this virus seriously and to follow the science and data-driven guidance to wear a mask, maintain a safe social distance from others, avoid large gatherings and stay home whenever possible,” Trahan said.
Trahan received her first shot of one of the vaccines last week, spokeswoman Francis Grubar told The Washington Post.
Occasional cases of people testing positive after receiving one or both doses are not unexpected, medical experts say. Clinical trial data published by Pfizer show that the vaccine is about 52 percent effective at preventing illness after the first shot, compared to 95 percent effectiveness seven days after the second dose.
A small number of patients can still become mildly sick even after they are fully vaccinated. But only one of the roughly 20,000 people who received both doses in the clinical trial developed severe covid-19, suggesting the vaccine is powerful protection against the most dangerous cases of the disease.
Members of Congress began getting vaccinated as early as Dec. 18, but Lynch at the time said he was “waiting for the vaccine to be first offered to health care personnel, first responders and vulnerable seniors” in his district, the Boston Herald reported. It is unclear when Lynch ultimately received his first dose of the vaccine; he would have received the second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine about three to four weeks after the first.
Public health experts have emphasized that it usually takes one week after the second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to reach 95 percent efficacy and two weeks after the second dose of the Moderna vaccine to reach 94 percent efficacy.
“There’s no vaccine that I know that protects you the same day you get it,” Onyema Ogbuagu, the principal investigator for Pfizer’s vaccine trial at Yale University, told The Post’s Allyson Chiu. “On a population level, 95% efficacy still translates to 5/100, or 50/1,000, or 500/10,000 vaccinated persons still being vulnerable to symptomatic disease and maybe even more having asymptomatic carriage.”
At least 23.2 million people in the United States have received one or both doses of the vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that vaccinated people continue to wear masks, socially distance, avoid poorly ventilated spaces and wash their hands frequently to prevent the spread of the virus.
“We also don’t yet know whether getting a covid-19 vaccine will prevent you from spreading the virus that causes covid-19 to other people, even if you don’t get sick yourself,” CDC guidelines state. “While experts learn more about the protection that covid-19 vaccines provide under real-life conditions, it will be important for everyone to continue using all the tools available to help stop this pandemic.”
Mask-wearing in particular has become politicized, including in the hallways of Congress. After the Jan. 6 siege at the Capitol, several Democrats said they feared they had been exposed to the virus after sheltering with Republican lawmakers who refused to wear masks. In the following, at least three lawmakers tested positive for the virus.
On Friday, Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) accused Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) of berating her in the hallways after she told Greene to put on a mask. The incident, coupled with other hostile rhetoric and Greene’s refusal to abide by rules and protocols put in place because of the pandemic, prompted Bush to decide to move her office away from Greene’s for safety reasons, the Missouri lawmaker said.
The state has lost a greater share of its nursing home residents to COVID-19 than any other state this fall.
On October 9, an employee in the business office at Tieszen Memorial Home in Marion, South Dakota, tested positive for the coronavirus. She was sent home immediately, but three days later, a nursing aide and a housekeeper both tested positive.
Marion, a town of fewer than 1,000 residents, was experiencing a sharp uptick in cases — what scientists call community spread. It became more and more likely that the nursing home’s employees had become infected while, for example, grocery shopping.
On October 16, COVID-19 killed its first Tieszen resident. At that point, about thirteen of the home’s 55 residents had tested positive.
Nursing home administrator Laura Wilson called the days that followed the worst of her career.
“You almost feel like a battle zone,” she said. “We said, ‘You know, right now, we just need to survive.’”
South Dakota Republican Gov. Kristi Noem has taken a notably relaxed approach to the pandemic. This autumn, months deep into this pandemic, nursing homes there have seen a larger share of their residents die than any other state.
At Jenkin’s Living Center in Watertown, 24 residents have died from COVID-19 since the last week of October — about a fifth of the residents there — data submitted to the federal government show. Thirteen patients at Weskota Manor in Wessington Springs — more than a third of its patients — died from COVID-19 this autumn, most of them in one week. Walworth County Care Center in Selby, a 50-bed facility, saw COVID-19 kill 12 patients this autumn, an administrator said. Overall, more than 40 percent of South Dakota nursing homes have lost a tenth or more of their patients to the coronavirus, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Nationwide, more than 100,000 residents of long-term care facilities have died of COVID-19, making up 38% of the nation’s virus deaths, according to The Atlantic’s Covid Tracking Project, even though they represent less than 1 percent of the population.
The federal government has made protecting the elderly a priority, shipping millions of rapid tests to nursing homes across the country. Public health experts spent the first nine months of the pandemic perfecting strategies to keep the virus from spreading in close quarters. But, as researchers have learned, whether nursing home residents die from COVID-19 depends less on what happens inside than outside. Once COVID-19 permeates a town, there’s a limit to what nursing homes alone can do.
And that has made South Dakota an especially deadly place.
A LONG STRING OF DEATHS
During Tieszen’s outbreak, the nursing home was eerily quiet. On a normal day, “The Price is Right” might blare from a room, echoing down the hallways. But when the coronavirus hit, all the residents’ doors had to be closed to try to control the spread.
Before October, Tieszen had pandemic challenges but not mass tragedy. Wilson was forced to hunt for N95 masks on eBay, even though South Dakota is home to a 3M factory that makes them. She relied on her son, who works at Sam’s Club, to buy one pack of disinfecting wipes every day for the nursing home’s stockpile. Back when she was using lab-confirmed tests to screen her staff, she had trouble getting test results back within the time recommended by federal guidelines, as the Sioux Falls lab she had contracted with was swamped. And she says, like always, staffing was a problem: Tieszen told the federal government it was short on nurses and aides every week in October and November.
Wilson, who has worked at the nursing home for 42 years, said her staff did everything it could during the outbreak. Indeed, Tieszen, a small nonprofit that has earned five stars in the federal government’s nursing home quality rankings, passed three state inspections of its infection-control program between May and November, records show. It received roughly $70,000 in CARES Act incentive payments from the federal government in September based on good performance.
When the coronavirus hit, the nursing home dedicated two of its wings to COVID-19 patients, isolating them from other residents, until so many contracted the virus that they had to stay in their rooms. The entire nursing home, essentially, became a COVID ward. Wilson’s own 85-year-old father tested positive. Nurses worked overtime; Wilson put in 80-hour weeks and hired temporary help. Staff served residents’ meals on paper plates instead of dishes that might retain the virus. They conducted weekly audits of how often staff were washing their hands. They tested workers and residents at any sign of a sniffle, as well as regularly regardless of symptoms, using equipment shipped to the nursing home from the federal government. They followed up positive rapid test results with lab-confirmed PCR tests.
Despite all of these measures, the virus spread quickly.
The week after Tieszen’s first death on October 16, five more residents died, Wilson said. Among them was 89-year-old Maxine Ortman, a former teacher suffering from dementia whose husband would visit often, before the pandemic, from his home across the street.
The following week, seven more died.
In November, another seven died. They included 68-year-old Larry Johnson, a diabetic and former mechanic whose sense of humor and work ethic drew customers from all over northeastern South Dakota, his family wrote in his obituary.
And they included Randy Wieman, 64. He had Down syndrome, and died a week after testing positive for the virus, said his older sister, Carol Husby. He loved music, dancing and his many nieces and nephews. A normal December would find them celebrating Wieman’s birthday with chocolate cake.
“He would call me every morning to ask if I was up,” Husby said. “Randy was an amazing individual.”
In total, 20 residents died of the coronavirus — more than a third of those living at the Tieszen nursing home — in the space of five weeks.
Tamara Konetzka, a health researcher at the University of Chicago, has been studying the fate of nursing homes in the pandemic since the spring.
Her conclusion: “Nothing much has changed.”
Despite more testing and efforts to hone infection control practices, despite nine months of scientific study of the virus, nursing home residents are still at the mercy of their surrounding communities. “If they’re in virus hotspots, they’re going to be at risk,” Konetzka said. “The idea that we have found the secret to preventing nursing home cases and death is a little crazy.”
And this autumn, nearly all of South Dakota has been a hotspot. The state has ranked at or near the top of all 50 states in new coronavirus cases and deaths for months in reports issued to governors by the White House Coronavirus Task Force. During one week prior to Thanksgiving, South Dakota had 988 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents — more than double the national average. It had 19.6 deaths per 100,000 residents — the worst rate in the nation and more than six times the national average.
The state’s governor, Noem, is widely believed to have national political ambitions. She has proudly shunned strict measures to curb the virus. “Rather than following the pack and mandating harsh rules,” she wrote in The Wall Street Journal earlier this month, “we ask all South Dakotans to take personal responsibility for their health …. The state hasn’t issued lockdowns or mask mandates. We haven’t shut down businesses or closed churches.”
Many South Dakotans have refused to wear masks or socially distance. In September, Wilson spoke at a meeting of local business owners in Marion and urged them to take mask-wearing seriously. She was met with blank stares.
“When I left that meeting I had basically resigned myself to the fact that I am living in a different world, and they don’t get it,” she said. “I’d be the only person in the grocery store with a mask on.”
Though limiting community spread is the best way to protect nursing homes, researchers said, some measures — especially having enough staff — can affect the severity of outbreaks. Here is where the federal government failed spectacularly, experts said. “What they needed — damn it — they needed money for more staffing,” said Larry Polivka, executive director of the aging-focused Claude Pepper Center at Florida State University. “And they needed all of the PPE. They needed massive testing capacity as quickly as possible in the spring — they didn’t get it.”
Wilson said the South Dakota Department of Health was helpful when she called or emailed with questions. The state continued to inspect nursing homes for infection control practices, and just 14 South Dakota nursing homes were cited by inspectors for inadequate infection control between March and October, according to federal data. The state has a program to recruit retired nurses and doctors to help work in healthcare settings. The federal government sent a “strike team” to South Dakota in October to help nursing homes tackle the coronavirus, a spokesman for CMS said in an email, and federal officials have offered training and guidance.
But it’s unclear what else, if anything, South Dakota did to help nursing homes weather the brutal autumn. For nine weeks in October and November, on average, nearly a quarter of all nursing homes in South Dakota told the federal government they were short on nursing staff, far more than the 16 percent that did so nationwide. On average, more than 40 percent of South Dakota nursing homes reported shortages of aides, more than double the nationwide figure. And 13 percent of South Dakota nursing homes during that time reported shortages of PPE — roughly the same as did nationwide.
Policymakers of all stripes, even those who embrace a controversial “herd immunity” strategy and wish the virus to run free through the population, stress the need to protect long-term-care residents. Noem has not explicitly endorsed a herd immunity approach but has emphasized that the coronavirus is less likely to harm young people. She has acknowledged that the elderly face greater risks from the coronavirus.
Yet the governor’s spokesperson did not answer questions from the Center for Public Integrity regarding nursing homes or respond to requests for comment. Noem’s health secretary did not respond to a request for an interview. The South Dakota Department of Health declined to answer multiple emails sent by Public Integrity over multiple weeks. The state’s long-term-care ombudsman refused through an agency spokesman to answer questions. When pressed, the spokesman said he did not know the reason but was given orders to decline the interview.
Even supposed advocates for nursing homes are reluctant to speak about the toll the coronavirus is taking on South Dakota’s elderly. Two trade associations representing nursing homes in the state declined interviews. One of them, the South Dakota Health Care Association, recommended that a reporter speak to the state department of health instead. Another lobbyist, who wished to remain anonymous to avoid angering the Noem administration, said people fear upsetting the governor’s office, known for its guarded approach to dealing with the media.
The state also waited until September to decide how to spend nearly $600 million in CARES Act funding approved by Congress in March. Noem finally set aside $115 million for nursing homes and other local health providers. But nursing homes had to apply for the funding during an 11-day period in October and meet strict qualifications. Tieszen applied but was not granted funds. Documents from the South Dakota Legislature dated Dec. 7 show that 115 health care organizations applied for the funding, and 47 were approved. But just $1.9 million had been handed out as of Dec. 18. The state is now proposing another grant program to distribute the money to health organizations based on bed numbers.
But for many nursing homes, the money comes too late to save lives. South Dakota may be past the worst of this COVID-19 surge. New coronavirus cases in the state are on the wane; vaccines are perhaps weeks away for nursing home residents at Tieszen and elsewhere.
All told, the state lost roughly one out of every 10 nursing home residents to COVID-19, according to federal data.
“I don’t understand why people didn’t take it seriously right from the beginning,” Husby said. “It just breaks my heart because it didn’t have to be this way.”
At least 60 sitting members of Congress — more than one in 10 — have tested positive for the coronavirus or are believed to have had Covid-19 at some point since the pandemic began. The list includes 44 Republicans and 16 Democrats.
That’s a higher proportion than the general population. As of Wednesday, a bit fewer than one in 14 Americans are known to have had the virus, according to a New York Times database, though many more cases have probably gone undetected.
Five House members have reported positive testssince the attack on the Capitol last week, when many lawmakers were holed up in a secure location together and some refused to wear masks — a situation that angered several Democrats, including Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington, one of those who has since tested positive. Congress’s attending physician warned members afterward that it was possible they were exposed while sheltering and recommended that they get tested.
Congress has struggled to stem the spread within its ranks in recent weeks. Most members who have tested positive have done so since the election in November, as coronavirus cases have surged across the country.
Representative Jake LaTurner, Republican of Kansas, said he received word just after the attack on the Capitol last Wednesday that he had tested positive, and did not return to the House floor for a vote early on Thursday.
Representative Gus Bilirakis of Florida and Representative Michelle Steel of California, both Republicans, were absent from the House floor when the mob entered the Capitol because each had received positive test results earlier that morning. Representative Chuck Fleischmann, Republican of Tennessee, said on Sunday that he had tested positive after exposure to Mr. Bilirakis, with whom he shares a residence.
More than six out of 10 Americans are hopeful about what 2021 has in store for the world, according to a new Axios/SurveyMonkey poll.
The big picture:After a year dominated by the pandemic and a seemingly endless presidential election, Americans are overwhelmingly hopeful that things will get better with the pandemic — and more narrowly hopeful about Joe Biden’s presidency.
By the numbers:63% of poll respondents said they’re more hopeful than fearful about what 2021 holds in store for the world, while 36% said they’re more fearful.
That’s a jump in optimism compared to the same poll heading into 2019, when just 51% said they were hopeful and 48% said they were fearful.
The only group that wasn’t optimistic about 2021 was Republicans: 41% said they were more hopeful, while 58% said they were more fearful.
Between the lines:Americans were even more optimistic about the year ahead for them personally — mostly driven by the hopes of young adults, people of color and Democrats.
The coronavirus was the one issue that united most people in optimism. Overall, 76% were more hopeful than fearful about the pandemic next year — a view that held across most age groups, racial and ethnic groups, and parties.
82% of Democrats, 72% of Republicans, and 73% of independents said they were more hopeful than fearful.
The Biden presidency was more divisive. Overall, 56% were more hopeful about his presidency, while 42% were more fearful.
Not surprisingly, Republicans are the most pessimistic: 82% said they’re more fearful than hopeful about his presidency.
By contrast, 59% of independents said they’re more hopeful about it — and 92% of Democrats said the same.
And while Republicans are ready for President Trump to take on a big leadership role in the Republican Party after his presidency ends, that’s not true of everyone else.
75% of Republicans said they’re more concerned that Trump will play too small a role in the future of the GOP rather than too big a role — while 51% of all respondents said they’re more concerned that he’ll play too big a role.
And more than half of Republicans (52%) said they believe Trump will have a major role in the Republican Party, while 30% said they think he’ll have a minor role.
By contrast, just 34% of all respondents expect him to play a major role, while 32% think he’ll have a minor role and 31% think he’ll have no role at all.