The COVID-19 pandemic health crisis continues in Lancaster County and the nation, with record numbers of infections and deaths.
COVID-19 remains a daily risk for everyone. The precautions of masking, physical distancing and hand-washing are more important now than at any time in the past year. COVID-19 vaccination provides hope for future change, but even those who have received the shot cannot put down their masks or gather closely with others.
Just one year ago, on Jan. 21, 2020, the first COVID-19 infection was identified in the United States. Six weeks later, on March 6, the first Pennsylvania case was noted. Less than two weeks after that, COVID-19 was found in Lancaster.
In the subsequent 12 months, COVID-19 has marched relentlessly through our communities, nursing homes and lives, leaving an indelible trail of suffering, destruction and grief. Following recent winter holiday gatherings, COVID-19 has surged to record levels, with more than 24 million confirmed U.S. cases. It has caused more than 408,000 deaths in the United States, with two new deaths every minute of each day.
COVID-19 infection has multiple different symptoms that mimic the common cold and other infections. Some people become severely ill in hours. Some show mild symptoms for a week and then develop severe respiratory distress. A few individuals show minimal symptoms but then die suddenly.
The greatest danger lies in people who become infected but never show symptoms. They continue on with their lives, not knowing that they are spreading COVID-19 to multiple other people.
We have learned a lot about the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. It spreads primarily from person to person, and much less via the objects in our environment. People are the primary risk for infection. The risk is higher with more people, closer proximity and longer time. A small, closed space is much more dangerous than a large, open, ventilated or outdoor area.
We have four main ways to protect ourselves against COVID-19. These continue to be crucially important to our personal and community health.
1. Masks to cover our mouth and nose. Masks filter out some virus particles from entering or leaving the body. They should be available and considered for every moment of every day. Cloth masks protect those wearing them, and nearby people, with up to 70% reduction in infection. They are most important when indoors and when we’re less than 6 feet apart. They should be worn even when not ill.
2. Physical distance from others and choice of safe activities. COVID-19 is spread primarily between people within 6 feet of each other for a prolonged time. If we consistently keep physical distance from others, the risk of infection drops significantly.
3. Hand-washing. We use our hands to open doors, help others and touch surfaces on which there may be viral particles. If we then touch our nose or mouth, our contaminated hands can pass infections to ourselves or others. Regular hand-washing or use of gel containing alcohol, especially after exposure to contaminated people or surfaces, will decrease the risk of COVID-19 infection.
4. COVID-19 vaccine. This is the new tool becoming available to prevent infection or decrease severity of infection. The early scientific data suggests that COVID-19 vaccines will play a major role in finally bringing the pandemic under control, if a high percentage of Lancaster County residents are willing to be vaccinated.
Many people are eagerly awaiting COVID-19 vaccination and are frustrated that it has not yet occurred. Hospitals, nursing homes and medical providers are also eager to protect their patients.
It is a huge task to vaccinate 325 million people in the United States and 12 million people in Pennsylvania. It requires supplies of the vaccines and materials, locations and staff to administer vaccination and individual willingness to receive it. Pennsylvania recently approved vaccine administration in 3.5 million people but has received about 1 million doses, most of which already have been administered. The state ships these doses to hospitals and medical providers’ offices, and they can administer only what they receive.
There are currently limited local supplies of the vaccine. In the next weeks, this supply will likely increase and eventually everyone can receive the vaccination. While it is hard to wait, patience and kindness will help all of us get through this time.
In the meantime, the suggestion is that you not swamp your hospital and medical providers’ offices with daily phone calls. Check their websites for updates on when they expect to have the vaccine. They are eager to provide it and will let you know when it is available.
This is important: Those who receive the COVID-19 vaccine must continue to wear masks, maintain safe physical distances and wash hands. The vaccine is 95% effective in preventing infection symptoms. But it is not yet known if the vaccine prevents asymptomatic infection and spread to others. We cannot stop infection precautions until the community rate of COVID-19 is greatly reduced.
The current COVID-19 crisis requires continued precautions from everyone every day. While reason for hope now exists, illness and death remain at record levels in Lancaster County. We must remain smart, careful and dedicated to proven protective measures against COVID-19 infection.
Dr. Leon Kraybill is the chief of Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health’s geriatric division and post-acute care, and medical director at Luther Acres in Lititz.