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Have we arrived at a much-anticipated tipping point in the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States? Or do we still have some time before we can return to some semblance of life as we knew it in 2019?
The CDC relaxation of masking and social distancing guidance for fully vaccinated Americans is one reason for optimism, some say, as is the recent milestone where we surpassed more than 50% of Americans vaccinated.
But it’s not all good news. “Right now we are struggling with vaccine hesitancy,” Ali H. Mokdad, PhD, told Medscape Medical News.
“My concern now is people who don’t want the vaccine are looking around them and saying, ‘Oh we are in a very good position. Infections are down, more than 50% of Americans are vaccinated. Why do I need to get a vaccine?’ ” he said.
Another potential issue is waning immunity, added Mokdad, professor of health metrics sciences at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, University of Washington, Seattle. Companies are developing booster shots and Anthony Fauci, MD, the White House chief science advisor, said they may be required in the future.
Mokdad said this could add to vaccine hesitancy now. “Someone might think ‘Why should I take this vaccine when there is a new one coming up?’ If I wait for 2 months, I’ll get a new one.'”
“We can definitely be optimistic. Things are going in the right direction,” John Segreti, MD, told Medscape Medical News when asked to comment. “The vaccines seem to be working as well as advertised and are holding up in a real-world situation.”
However, “It’s too early to say it’s over,” he stressed.
“There is still moderate to substantial transmission in the community just about everywhere in the US. It might take a while until we see transmission rates declining to the point where the pandemic will be declared over,” added Segreti, hospital epidemiologist and medical director of infection control and prevention at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois.
The global picture is another reason for pessimism, he said. “There is not enough vaccine for around the world. As long as there is uncontrolled transmission of coronavirus somewhere in the world, there is a greater chance for selecting out variants and variants that can escape the vaccine.”
“But overall I am much more optimistic than I was 6 months ago,” Segreti added.
Vaccines vs Variant
In a study evaluating two COVID-19 vaccines against the B.1.167.2 variant first reported in India, researchers evaluated data from Public Health England and reported reassuring news that the vaccines protected against this variant of concern. They studied the efficacy of the Pfizer/BioNTech and AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccines.
“After two doses of either vaccine there were only modest differences in vaccine effectiveness with the B.1.617.2 variant,” the researchers note. “Absolute differences in vaccine effectiveness were more marked with dose one. This would support maximizing vaccine uptake with two doses among vulnerable groups.”
The study was published online May 22 as a preprint on MedRxiv. It has not yet been peer reviewed.
The positive findings generated a lot of discussion on Twitter, with some still urging caution about celebrating the end of the pandemic. For example, a tweet from Aris Katzourakis, a paleo-virologist and researcher at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom, questioned how the results could be interpreted as good news “unless your priors were unreasonably catastrophic.”
OK so long story short; the data on vaccines and transmissibility are somewhere between 'this is bad news' and 'this is quite bad but not terrible'. What I am struggling to see is how it could be interpreted as good news, unless your priors were unreasonably catastrophic.
— Aris Katzourakis (@ArisKatzourakis) May 24, 2021
“It depends on what happens to hospitalizations and deaths, as Andrew Pollard said this morning,” Charlotte Houldcroft, PhD, a post-doctoral research associate at Cambridge University in the UK, replied.
Depends on what happens to hospitalisations and deaths, as Andrew Pollard said this morning…
— Dr CJ Houldcroft 🕷️ (@DrCJ_Houldcroft) May 24, 2021
Houldcroft was referring to a comment this week from Andrew Pollard, MBBS, PhD, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, who said if most people with COVID-19 are kept out of the hospital with the current vaccines “then the pandemic is over.”
Pollard also told The Guardian: “We can live with the virus; in fact we are going to have to live with the virus in one way or another. We just need a little bit more time to have certainty around this.”
Others acknowledge that even though cases are dropping in the US, it could mean COVID-19 will transition to a seasonal illness like the flu. If that’s the case, they caution, a warm weather lull in COVID-19 cases could portend another surge come the winter.
But, Segreti said, it’s too early to tell.
“It’s reasonable to expect that at some point we will need a booster,” he added, but the timeline and frequency remain unknown.
The US economy is operating at 90% of where it was before the pandemic, according to the ‘Back to Normal Index’ calculated by CNN Business and Moody’s Analytics based on 37 national and seven state measures.
The index improved in 44 states in the week prior to May 26, which could also reflect an overall improvement in the COVID-19 pandemic.
State and federal unemployment numbers, job postings and hiring rates, and personal savings appear to be trending in a positive direction. In contrast, box office sales, hotel occupancy, and domestic air travel continue to struggle.
Mokdad and Segreti have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.
MedRxiv. Published online May 22, 2021. Full text
Damian McNamara is a staff journalist based in Miami. He covers a wide range of medical specialties, including infectious diseases, gastroenterology and critical care. Follow Damian on Twitter: @MedReporter.
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