WASHINGTON — Last week, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was visiting a coronavirus vaccine clinic in Atlanta, where the agency she has led since January is based. While there, she asked “a couple of patients,” as she put it, whether they knew anyone who had gotten their shots.
“And they said ‘no,’” Walensky told Yahoo News. “Which is striking, right?”
Disparities in vaccination mean that the nation’s defenses are strong in some places but full of gaps in others. Massachusetts, where Walensky lived and practiced medicine before coming to head the CDC, has a 60 percent vaccination rate. That’s one of the highest rates in the nation. Atlanta is in Georgia, which has one of the lowest, with only 35.4 percent of its population having been inoculated against the coronavirus.
That could spell trouble in the months ahead, especially as the new Delta strain of the coronavirus proliferates.
“I make no promises” about the return of restrictions, Walensky says. She doesn’t think lockdowns will be necessary, but her experience at the clinic last week was a reminder of the challenges that remain. Even as people pack into Yankee Stadium again, hospitals are filling in Missouri. An outbreak in Florida killed two municipal employees. Oklahoma is seeing a surge.
“This is hard stuff,” Walensky says. The public health system has been crippled by persistently low funding, she notes, and community health centers that had once served as beacons of care and trust are not nearly as ubiquitous as they should be. So she says again what she has said already: “I think we knew this was going to be hard.”
After 18 hard months, the question is how much longer Americans will have to live with the persistent threat of the coronavirus. Will the new Delta variant prolong the pandemic? Will travel be possible this summer? Will schools open this fall?
Like most scientists, Walensky doesn’t like to speak in certainties. But she is firm when it comes to schools. “I am leaning in heavily on full in-person safe learning for all schools,” she says of the 2021-22 school year, which many parents are desperately hoping is free of isolating and unsatisfying Zoom classes.
Conservatives have accused the CDC of allowing teachers’ unions to influence reopening guidelines; Walensky has three sons, and she has spoken movingly about their own difficulties with remote learning. “Schools should be the first place to open and the last place to close,” she says, repeating a common refrain that much of the country declined to fully heed during the now-concluding school year.
A renowned AIDS doctor, Walensky had not served as a full-time administrator before being appointed in December by then-President-elect Joe Biden to lead the CDC. In the months since, she has had to navigate complex crosscurrents of science, politics and culture. Removed from the somewhat more mannered precincts of academe (she is a professor at Harvard Medical School, from which she also graduated), she has found every statement scrutinized, such as when she spoke of a feeling of “impending doom” in March, as a fourth coronavirus wave seemed to loom.
That wave never materialized. Since those more fraught days of early spring, Walensky has become more accustomed to the brutal nexus of politics and media that can make public health messaging so challenging in 2021. Now her task is to manage the pandemic’s endgame — and to bring that end closer. The end is indeed close, but not everywhere, and perhaps not as close as some may think.
Even now, she notes, some 300 people are dying from COVID-19 daily — many fewer than were dying in January, to be sure, but still far too many to declare victory. “Almost every single one of those is preventable,” she says. “And those hurt, right? Because this vaccine works.”
At the same time, she says that “the federal government is not going to be involved in mandating or verifying vaccination.” This spring, conservatives like Trump ally Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor, sought to turn “vaccine passports” into a culture war issue, and the Biden administration beat a quick retreat.
Instead, states, municipalities and corporations offered a bevy of incentives — guns, beer, cash — to entice the hesitant to get their inoculations. Such efforts may have helped, but the Biden administration conceded earlier this week that it will not meet its goal of having 70 percent of American adults vaccinated by the Fourth of July.
The differing rates of vaccination could become especially relevant as the Delta variant becomes ever more dominant. It is thought to be about 60 percent more transmissible than the original SARS-CoV-2 pathogen. The new strain also seems to be sickening younger people, though that could be simply because they are less likely to have been vaccinated than those who are older.
Vaccines are highly effective against the Delta variant, though a person needs to be fully vaccinated for that protection to take hold (partial vaccination seems to work better against other variants than against this one).
In some ways, the situation today is reminiscent of last June’s, when infection rates dropped in states like New Jersey and New York. Some thought the pandemic was over. They were wrong.
Last week, Biden suggested that there would be no new lockdowns, even if infection rates rise, as they did in the United Kingdom after the Delta variant took root there this spring. On the whole, the vaccination effort has been an astonishing success.
“I’m pretty humble when it comes to this pandemic at this point,” Walensky told Yahoo News. Neither she nor the president could readily impose nationwide restrictions in any case, as those decisions are made on state and local levels. But either a presidential decree or CDC guidance would have a huge impact on shaping policy.
“I’m really hopeful from a public health standpoint that won’t be necessary,” Walensky says. If there is another wave this summer, it will almost certainly be confined to low-vaccination communities, making for what Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine, has called “two COVID nations.”
There is also the so-called Delta Plus variant, now emerging in India. “We’re not that convinced that that other mutation is clinically meaningful at all,” Walensky says. “We don’t have a huge level of concern.”
Time and again, she returns to a single, simple argument: That vaccines work. They work really well, they work against variants and they work with only minuscule incidence of adverse reactions. Despite continuing concerns, she says that Americans who’ve had their shots can safely reemerge.
Vacation is a good idea, perhaps even a necessary one. “I really believe in recharging. And so many people need it so badly right now,” Walensky told Yahoo News. “If you’re vaccinated, that should be fine.”
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