Eight months after Alaska’s first COVID-19 case and seven months after in-person school ended in Anchorage, we stand at the darkest moment of the pandemic in our state. Case counts and positivity rates have skyrocketed. Hospitals and the health care workers who staff them are strained. The low death toll, long Alaska’s signature accomplishment in its pandemic response, has begun to creep up. Rural communities that had escaped infection for many months are now feeling the brunt of the disease.
But in this darkest hour, we have at last been given the news so many of us have hoped for: COVID-19 vaccines are close to ready, and all evidence so far shows that the two most promising candidates are at least 90% effective. That’s a miracle, the kind of efficacy that could stamp out widespread COVID-19 infections worldwide. It’s not too far into the realm of hyperbole to rank the development of a COVID-19 vaccine in the same realm as the Apollo Program that brought humankind to the moon. Never before has a disease been sequenced and a vaccine been developed so quickly. Never before has a vaccine been assembled using messenger RNA, a bioengineering feat that could herald a new era in combating disease. Never in our lifetimes has so much — our health, our economy even and our ability to safely gather with other people — hinged on a single technological advancement. This Thanksgiving, we ought all give thanks that so many have worked so hard to make it possible.
But it’s not here yet. Optimistic timetables hold that the vaccines could be approved for emergency use before the end of the year, but only for the highest-risk Americans. Perhaps 10 million doses will initially be available, and the logistical and technological hurdles in delivering the vaccine and keeping it supercooled so that it remains viable are immense. Once the vaccines are in full production, there will be tens of millions of doses produced every month, which could allow for most Americans to receive their shots by late spring or early summer. For those working to develop, transfer and administer the vaccine, there are hundreds of issues to overcome between now and then to make sure it can be rolled out safely and efficiently. For those of us waiting for the vaccine, there’s only one significant issue to overcome, but it’s a doozy: There’s a lot of time between now and when most of us can be inoculated, and we’re heading in the wrong direction quickly with regard to the virus’ spread.
There’s less time between now and next summer than we’ve endured already under the changed world of the pandemic, but in that time, a quarter-million Americans have died. We’re at our highest levels of infection yet, both in Alaska and the U.S. at large, and there’s plenty of reason to believe that many people — or more — could die between now and when the vaccine allows us to achieve herd immunity. And every death from COVID-19 between now and then will be doubly tragic, as we now have a sense of how long we must hold out for the cure to arrive.
Given that reality, we must redouble our efforts to abide by the health practices set forth by national and state health authorities. Wear a mask in public. Maintain at least six feet of social distance between yourself and people outside your household “bubble.” Wash your hands frequently. Modify or cancel plans for holiday get-togethers to minimize risks — though we may have to abide being apart from some of the people we love most this Thanksgiving and Christmas, doing so is the best way to ensure that we’ll all be around for next year’s holidays.
The consequences if we don’t get COVID-19 under control could be immense. Although the death rate for the virus is low, it rises when health care facilities are overwhelmed, reaching as high as 10% at the height of the early spikes in places like New York City and Italy. We can’t afford to have that happen here, and Anchorage authorities have indicated they will institute more drastic closures of public facilities and businesses if such a situation is imminent. Many people, and many businesses, won’t survive if that happens.
We know an end to COVID-19 is coming. We know the vaccines are effective, and we know there will be supply enough for everyone. But we must reach that point, and we must keep as many Alaskans alive as we possibly can on the way there. On the day we stamp out COVID-19 for good, we don’t want to look back and realize we could have done more, could have kept more people we love from falling victim. We should be able to look back and recognize that we did everything we could.