DIY is no way to fight a pandemic

Doing it yourself, or DIY, is great for home renovations. But as a method of managing a pandemic, DIY hasn’t worked out so well. In fact, as I write, more Americans are hospitalized with COVID-19 than at any previous point in the pandemic, with an average of more than 2,000 dying daily. That’s one American dying from COVID-19 every 43 seconds. Clearly pleading with individuals to “make the choice that is right for them” and fighting against public health regulations has led to uncontrolled, unmitigated, mass forced infection. The DIY approach has failed and increased health disparities nationally, as it also has here in Alaska.

The absence of public health policies since the summer of 2021 has allowed more recent variants of concern to spread rapidly throughout the community, which of course threatens hospitals, the economy and extends the pandemic. The current rhetoric of “learning to live with the virus” and the omicron variant causing “mild” disease is premature and reckless. Even if omicron turns out to be 15-20% less severe than the delta variant, let’s remember that’s still really bad. In addition to omicron’s increased transmissibility, two of the three monoclonal antibody treatments don’t work against omicron, and the one that does is in short supply. Medications like Paxlovid are also under supply stress. Most Alaskans haven’t been boosted, and many have conditions that increase their risk of severe disease. They all deserve to live.

Most alarming is the lack of care we have shown children and public school personnel. We could protect children 5 and above with basic vaccine requirements -- as we have done for decades with many other highly contagious infectious diseases. Instead, we asked children to return to school knowing most are unvaccinated, thus forcing them to take on the unknown long-term risks from infection. Years from now, when kids experience disabilities from the damage the virus caused that now impacts their ability to learn, how will we forgive ourselves for failing to institute vaccine requirements? How will we explain to them that we could have done more to protect them? In fact, we could have done the one thing that would have protected them the most, and still, we failed to do it.

Alaska’s COVID-19 vaccination rate rates are dangerously low in many areas, especially for children and adolescents. Well more than 2,500 SARS-CoV-2 infections have been reported in the Anchorage School District since Jan. 3, 2021. Many of those infections were preventable with vaccination. Vaccine requirements are standard for the prevention and control of any highly contagious virus that transmits through the air from individuals when they are asymptomatic, which can cause long-term disability or death. Once high vaccination rates are achieved, masking, testing, ventilation and distancing in schools would make schools even safer during a surge.

Please call your elected officials and school board members to demand safe public schools for all children by instituting vaccine requirements immediately.

When those with the power to enact public health policies that save lives choose instead to please billionaire donors and special interest groups, we all lose. When misinformation and politicized anti-science beliefs infect elected officials and neuter efforts to establish public health policies, we are all less safe. Failing to protect children by refusing to apply vaccination requirements during a global pandemic, with overwhelming evidence of vaccine effectiveness and safety, is simply unconscionable.

Jennifer Meyer, Ph.D., MPH, CPH, RN, is an assistant professor of public health at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She is a former public health nurse and is a member of the Alaska Public Health Information Response Team.

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