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COMMENTARY | Even with a speedy rollout, many Americans will die of the coronavirus before they can get vaccinated.
After 10 months of witnessing the coronavirus’s destructive capacity, on December 16 I joined thousands of health-care workers across the country and received my initial dose of a Covid-19 vaccine. I felt hope for the first time since March, when Covid-19 patients started streaming into my emergency room. My colleagues and I would now have one more layer of protection in our fight against the virus.
My relief was short-lived. Walking back into the emergency room, I once again felt the despair brought on by the pandemic; the vaccines won’t help any of the Covid-19 patients I am currently treating, or those who will come in during my next shift.
On the same day television networks broadcast clips of frontline workers rolling up their sleeves to get vaccinated, the U.S. crossed another, more depressing, milestone: passing 300,000 deaths from Covid-19. Despite the miracle of multiple vaccines being researched, authorized, and injected in record time, many Americans will still die of the coronavirus before they can get vaccinated.
In the first week of the vaccine rollout, 614,000 Americans were vaccinated but nearly 1.5 million were diagnosed with Covid-19. Many will continue to flood our hospitals. The families of those dying will suffer, as will the medical teams caring for them, who have faced so much heartbreak this year.
During the spring surge, I watched many of my colleagues get infected and struggle with Covid-19. I remember Jeaux Gallien, a resident physician, coming into the ER barely able to stand, gasping for air, unable to speak. We hurriedly put him in a wheelchair and rushed him into treatment. He recovered, but other colleagues who got sick did not. Romy Agtarap died in April. He was on a ventilator in the same hospital he’d served for decades as a nurse. He came out of retirement to help fight back the wave of patients. And for it, he lost his life.
The vaccines do help us though—and not just by protecting our lives. They reduce some of the anxiety and stress we have faced throughout the pandemic. Since March, my greatest worry has been falling ill and bringing the virus home to my family. Being vaccinated substantially lowers that risk.
But I’ll feel even more relieved once the number of new Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths start to drop. The good news is that we don’t need to rely on the vaccine for that. Americans can help lessen the burden facing health-care workers while they wait for their shots—by doing exactly the same things we have been doing, or should have been doing, all along: wearing masks, washing our hands, social distancing, and avoiding indoor settings, especially those with poor ventilation. These actions are much easier to do than putting vaccine doses into specialized vials at subarctic temperatures and distributing them across the country.
If everyone adhered to these simple and small actions, the short-term impact would be much greater than that of the vaccine rollout. Hospitals across the country would start to notice the difference in a few weeks’ time. In fact, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projects that over the next three months universal mask wearing alone could save 49,000 lives, while the vaccine rollout would save 33,200.
Getting the country immunized is an important long-term goal and crucial for ending the pandemic, but in the months to come, Americans need to double down on simple, proven measures. That will take the stress off of hospitals and providers, and ultimately spare families all across the country the pain of saying goodbye to a loved one over a grainy FaceTime video. The Covid-19 vaccines are unprecedented feats of science, but some of the most powerful tools for defeating the pandemic have been right in front of us all along.
Craig Spencer is an emergency medicine physician and director of global health in emergency medicine at New York Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center.