The announcement that Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine is more than 90 percent effective at preventing Covid-19 infections — much better than many anticipated — is cause for celebration. With a vaccine of this efficacy, suppression of the disease is entirely realistic.
Unfortunately, this development doesn’t mean we can all relax and start doing more things. It means we need to tighten up even further until the vaccine becomes available.
The goal is now no longer to learn to live indefinitely with the virus. It’s to get as many people through the winter as possible without getting sick. Keeping the infection rate low is important, because that’s what will allow us to push the virus into the ground as quickly as possible once we have the vaccine in hand.
A death avoided this winter is a life saved. We are no longer delaying the inevitable.
It’s always been hard to convince people to make good choices when considering sacrifices. Uncertainty around when we’d get an effective vaccine made it even harder. Cutting off in-person interactions for an uncertain stretch of time was excruciating. But it may be more palatable to hunker down if it’s only for a defined period.
To make the situation concrete, let’s consider the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. With cases growing rapidly around the country, especially in the northern Midwest, indoor social gatherings are more dangerous than at any point since the spring. Thanksgiving dinners are ideal settings for “superspreader” events: They crowd people from all over around a table to talk, laugh and drink, often in poorly ventilated rooms. Many families stuff themselves into houses for an entire long weekend.
Many of us haven’t seen our extended relatives for months. If we believe this pandemic will be raging for another year — or more — it’s tempting to think that the benefits of reconnecting over Thanksgiving might outweigh the risk of infection. We can’t wait forever; maybe it’s worth rolling the dice.
The calculus is very different, however, if a vaccine is around the corner. While Pfizer’s still needs to be approved, manufactured and distributed, the company estimates that 50 million doses could be distributed before the end of the year. Another 1.3 billion would come in 2021. If other vaccines also show success, relief could come as soon as the spring.
Assuming this timeline holds, the case for skipping Thanksgiving becomes much stronger. People no longer have to pick between the risk of spreading Covid-19 and the risk of foregoing seeing family for the foreseeable future. They have only to sacrifice seeing them this fall in order to see them much more safely a number of months later. Why not wait?
The point generalizes. Without question, the sacrifices required to keep us safe from Covid-19 are costly. And the costs are not just financial; mental health is at risk as well as physical health as people forgo care, including self-care, to remain free from infection. All of that becomes easier to swallow if it’s for a shorter period of time.
The changed risk picture also has significant policy implications. As we speak, a nervous Europe has mostly locked itself down again, hoping to stave off the worst effects of a huge surge in infections. Germany, France and England have closed bars, restaurants, gyms and more.
For the most part, we haven’t done the same here in the United States, even in states that have been hit hard. Part of that is because our nation’s response to the pandemic has become politicized. But part of it, too, reflects the belief that indefinite business closures are just too costly. Countless small businesses would fail and unemployment would skyrocket. Many argue that we have to live with increased disease because we can’t lock down for years.
But mask mandates, gathering restrictions and business closures are more tolerable — and the impositions they require more justifiable — if we have more confidence that they’ll be temporary.
By the same token, Pfizer’s announcement strengthens the case for federal financial support. Covid-19 is still going to hurt some businesses disproportionately, either because they’ll be forced to close again or because people have stopped going out as much. But Congress no longer needs to write a blank check to support them. It just needs to provide a lifeline for a number of months, a much more palatable prospect.
Providing these resources will have the added benefit of making it politically easier for states to adopt assertive measures to get a handle on case counts that are spiraling out of control. It’s a bad idea for restaurants and bars to be open for indoor dining this winter. Temporarily closing them down would be easier to stomach if these establishments are given the wherewithal to reopen next year.
The same is true for aid to individuals who find themselves out of work as the virus-induced economic troubles deepen. Another round of topped-up unemployment insurance doesn’t present the same financial risk to the United States as a never-ending financial obligation to the jobless.
The Pfizer announcement is unmitigated good news. But it would be a tragic mistake to relax our vigilance. Instead, continue to mask up, stay home and consider canceling or limiting your Thanksgiving plans. This is still a marathon, but the end is much closer than before.
Aaron E. Carroll (@aaronecarroll) is a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine and a contributing opinion writer. Nicholas Bagley (@nicholas_bagley) is a law professor at the University of Michigan.
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