Most people would agree that the past 18 months have been some of the most difficult we’ve ever experienced. We have had to face many of our worst fears. We’ve seen friends and loved one become incredibly sick with COVID-19, and some have died. Simultaneously, everything we take for granted about daily life has been turned upside down. The fact that we now have vaccines to fight this virus is spectacular. These medical innovations were possible because of the scientists who spent decades studying how to create an mRNA vaccine and they allowed us to see a glimmer of hope. Most of us were able to let our guard down a bit and before long many restrictions were lifted. I was even able to throw an outdoor birthday party for my daughter, with a guest list consisting of fully vaccinated adults and their children. For a moment, things began to feel almost normal, but now the game has changed.
Delta, a newer variant of the COVID-19 virus, spread rapidly through unvaccinated adults, and has become the most prevalent strain in the United States. It has affected children in ways the original variant never did. Many hospitals and their intensive care units are once again filled beyond capacity. Healthcare workers are exhausted and exasperated. They are mostly treating adults who could have been vaccinated but chose not to. It is devastating to see.
The people who have been vaccinated are significantly less likely to become infected and, if they are, they are much less likely to develop a severe form of the disease and need to be hospitalized. They are also much less likely to die from COVID-19. This shows us that the vaccines are working.
If we act now to minimize spread, we have an opportunity to return to the “good place” that we were in last spring. If we do not, our worst fears could materialize. There is always a chance that a new strain of the disease could manifest which may be unaffected by our current vaccines and we would be back at square one. The battle has become more over politics than over the prevention of the disease itself and sadly children under 12 who are not yet eligible to receive the vaccine are now experiencing the repercussions. The FDA recently granted full approval for the Pfizer vaccine in people ages 16 and over (the vaccine for ages 12-15 is still available under emergency use authorization), and it is possible that the FDA will approve the use of one or more vaccines in younger children in the coming months. My hope is that these approvals will encourage those who have not yet been vaccinated to do so.
Meanwhile, we are also learning that although the vaccines have kept many of us safe, the immunity they provide wanes over time. It now appears we will need an additional dose or “booster shot,” similar to what we receive for other types of vacccines. Booster shots for immunocompromised patients – including cancer patients — have already been authorized, and I expect this authorization to be expanded soon to the general population.
In the midst of the doom and gloom, there is a silver lining. Researchers have been able to learn a lot about the virus and how to prevent it from spreading. As a result, we now know how to provide safe breast cancer care, and people no longer need to fear coming into the hospital for a routine mammogram, to have a lump examined, or for breast cancer surgery. In addition, many of the research studies that were put on hold are now back on track. Vaccination, masks, and trusting the advice of well-trained and highly experienced medical experts will help us continue to move beyond COVID-19. A future that brings us closer normal is only possible if everyone does their part.