What a difference a year (or so) makes. Today in the United States, COVID-19 vaccines are widely available, and a return to full capacity events, indoors and outdoors, with relaxed mask restrictions, is the new normal. Many of us are settling getting back to activities that we used to enjoy before the pandemic upended many of our routines.
Is the pandemic nearly over? And if not, when can we expect it to be?
Last year at the start of lockdowns in the United States and many parts of the world, MacArthur Fellow Gregg Gonsalves shared five ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19. He is an epidemiologist and global health advocate who has devoted his career to improving responses to global public health challenges.
We circled back with him to learn more about the state of the pandemic this summer, mask wearing, vaccinations, and what we might expect going forward:
Vaccinated Americans can shed their masks in almost all places, and many public events with crowds are fully reopened this summer. Is the COVID-19 pandemic pretty much over?
The COVID-19 pandemic is not over until it is over for all of us. If you are vaccinated, you are protected against infection and won’t be able to transmit the virus to others. However, many people across the United States are still unvaccinated and the disease will continue to spread, causing illness and death across the country.
Many Americans are still hesitant to get vaccinated. Why? And how would you advise someone to persuade a friend or family member to get vaccinated?
There are many reasons for vaccine hesitancy. Some of it arises out of long-term mistrust of the medical establishment. Some of it is new politically-fueled skepticism. Some of it is from anti-vaxxers who have been peddling dangerous nonsense on vaccines for years. None of it is based on fact, science, or evidence.
The COVID-19 vaccines are remarkably effective and safe. If you are unvaccinated, you risk catching SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes the disease) from other unvaccinated people, further risking death and long-term complications of infection, and passing on the virus to your unvaccinated family members, friends, and colleagues. If you are unvaccinated, you should still be wearing a mask, social distancing, and limiting your indoor social interactions. It’s still 2020 for you while it’s 2021 for many others who can shed their masks, resume their social lives, and get back to their old routines.
If you have someone in your life who is hesitant about the vaccine, talk to them, listen to their concerns, and try to offer the facts gently. Engagement, not confrontation, is the key.
With the pandemic still going on in other countries, what do we in the United States do on an individual and collective scale to help?
COVID-19 is raging outside of the United States and many of the rich countries of the world. While rich countries bought up all the vaccine doses, only empty promises were made to low- and middle-income countries. Some have yet to vaccinate a single person, and some of their citizens will have to wait until 2022 or 2023 to get vaccinated.
These vaccines were made with billions of taxpayer dollars — they are a public good created with public money — yet they are being treated as private intellectual property, like an iPhone or a Telsa. The People’s Vaccine campaign has demanded that intellectual property protections on COVID-19 vaccines be relaxed to speed up the production of these critical health interventions around the world. In addition, the originator companies must provide tech transfer to other companies around the world, while rich countries subsidize the scale-up of new factories to make billions of doses of these vaccines.
We can do this. What we’re missing is political will. It’s time for everyone to call their elected officials and tell them that no one is safe until we all are safe. New variants continue to spread, sowing chaos and death around the world, destroying families, disrupting lives and economies, and risking the emergence of variants that may turn out to evade our current vaccines.
Why have vaccine rollouts been successful in some countries and not others? If you could disburse vaccines to areas most in need, where would you send them?
This is a global pandemic. We’re in it ’til we win it and beat SARS-CoV-2. In large part, the “vaccine apartheid,” as many of us have been calling it, is again a political issue in which rich countries hoarded doses then told low- and middle-income countries that it was impossible to scale-up quickly enough to save millions of lives. The COVID-19 pandemic is a moving target — like a brush fire. It can rise up in one place and produce embers that carry it to another. We have seen this all spring in Brazil and India.
It’s very easy to see SARS-CoV-2 taking off in other populous countries and regions where vaccines are in short supply or not available at all. We need to rapidly scale up vaccination worldwide now, not in 2022, 2023, or 2024. This means an unprecedented global mobilization.
It’s that big of a challenge requiring that big of a response.
How much longer do you think the pandemic will continue on in the United States and beyond?
SARS-CoV-2 is not going away. There was a chance to stop it early in 2020, but too many political leaders ignored the threat, downplayed it, or didn’t rise to the occasion to smash it from the start. A few countries, like New Zealand, broke the mold and sought the elimination of the virus from within their borders, but others did not rally to do this.
The disease is now endemic, meaning we will have to live with it as we live with other endemic infections like influenza, with the unvaccinated at risk for the foreseeable future, whether they are in Texas or Turkmenistan.