According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, Lancaster County had seen 43,348 cases of COVID-19 as of Friday. County Coroner Dr. Stephen Diamantoni said there had been 947 deaths. State health officials said 33,582 county residents had received partial vaccinations, and 24,621 had been fully vaccinated. The United States tragically surpassed the half-million mark in COVID-19 deaths last Monday. As of Friday evening, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, more than 509,000 Americans had died.
You might have experienced an unfamiliar feeling — that is, hope — when you read the article on the front page of last week’s Sunday LNP | LancasterOnline reporting that COVID-19 cases were plummeting nationwide and vaccinations were increasing.
“Many epidemiologists and other scientists, while still cautious, say they feel increasingly hopeful that the rest of 2021 will not replay the nightmare of last year,” noted the Los Angeles Times.
Please, please, please let this be so.
You don’t need us to tell you that the nearly 12 months since the pandemic upended our lives have been brutal, marred by economic hardship, school closures, frayed nerves, disrupted routines and heartrending loss. We’ve become so accustomed to bad news — to setbacks and surges — that it can be difficult to be optimistic.
But as The New York Times noted Thursday, “the coronavirus seems to be loosening its stranglehold. The deadly curve of cases, hospitalizations and deaths has yo-yoed before, but never has it plunged so steeply and so fast.”
The Times interviewed 21 scientists and all were optimistic that the worst of the pandemic is behind us. “But — of course, there’s always a but — researchers are also worried that Americans, so close to the finish line, may once again underestimate the virus,” The Times reported.
The United States still is reporting about 2,000 deaths a day. We should never be OK with that level of daily loss.
And Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said this Friday in a White House COVID-19 briefing: “Things are tenuous. Now is not the time to relax restrictions.”
Even the most hopeful scenario won’t materialize if we cease being vigilant. There can be no letting up on mask-wearing, social distancing and hand-washing.
Even after we get fully vaccinated, it’s essential that we continue to take these commonsense precautions against COVID-19. An Atlantic magazine article offered this excellent advice to those fortunate enough to have received a COVID-19 vaccine: “When deciding what you can and can’t do, you should think less about your own vaccination status, and more about whether your neighbors, family, grocery clerks, delivery drivers, and friends are still vulnerable to the virus.”
We intend to be guided by this advice and hope you will be, too. The selfishness of resisting masks and failing to practice social distancing has helped to extend the pandemic; we hope we’re beyond such nonsense now.
For one thing, the emerging variants of the disease are the wild cards that could stall our fiercest hopes.
As The New York Times reported Wednesday, “A new form of the coronavirus is spreading rapidly in New York City, and it carries a worrisome mutation that may weaken the effectiveness of vaccines, two teams of researchers have found.”
And a British variant — which is estimated to be 50% more transmissible than the original strain — has emerged in 45 states, including Pennsylvania, according to the CDC.
Andrew Read, an evolutionary microbiologist at Penn State University, told The New York Times that vaccines likely will need to be tweaked for these variants, “but in the scheme of things, those aren’t huge worries compared to not having a vaccine.”
Said Read: “I’d say the glass is three-quarters full, compared to where we were last year.”
But, again, here’s the caveat: If we want to return to baseball games and family picnics this summer, we need to keep listening to the scientists. And that means masking up, social distancing and getting vaccinated as soon as the supply and process allow. And not holding out for the vaccine we prefer.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, told NBC’s “Today” show last week that we’re in a race “between the virus and getting vaccines into people. The longer someone waits to get vaccinated, the better chance the virus has to get a variant or a mutation.”
Said Fauci: “So the sooner we get vaccine into the arms of individuals, whatever that vaccine is ... if it’s available to you, get it.”
If you can, that is.
Getting everyone in Pennsylvania’s Phase 1A — including senior citizens, health care workers and people with high-risk health conditions — vaccinated remains a challenge here. Lancaster County still ranks low among Pennsylvania counties for our number of vaccinated residents. We continue to believe that the existence of a high-quality county public health department would have improved our situation throughout this pandemic.
There was some progress last week, at least in terms of reducing the frustration of seeking vaccine appointments.
Both Penn State Health and UPMC now allow people in Phase 1A to register for vaccination — and by phone, too, which will help those without internet access. Those providers will contact registrants when appointments become available.
As LNP | LancasterOnline’s Hurubie Meko reported, an order from the state Health Department “mandated that COVID-19 vaccine providers open up scheduling to all people who fit under the state’s current eligibility category.” That order “meant that vaccine providers who were directly contacting their patients instead of allowing all eligible individuals to schedule inoculation appointments had to open up their scheduling.”
And as Meko also reported, the former Bon-Ton store at Park City Center was being transformed last week by the concert and event staging company Rock Lititz into a mass vaccination site set to open in two weeks.
We hope the county’s vaccinatelancaster.org website is updated soon with an actual means of registering for a vaccine appointment instead of the “check back for updates” notice that was still on the website Friday afternoon.
We also hope that we don’t see another screwup like the one by the state that led to 100,000 Pennsylvanians having to wait for their second doses of the Moderna vaccine, because those doses were administered as first doses to other people.
As LNP | LancasterOnline’s Nicole C. Brambila reported, worryingly, “Untangling what went wrong has been a challenge, as the Health Department doesn’t exactly know.”
State Health Department spokesman Barry Ciccocioppo said a deep dive into the error will happen at a later date, but the focus last week was on “getting the vaccine out and ensuring everyone who got the first vaccine can go back to their same provider” for their second dose.
Ciccocioppo said state officials were implementing a better system for tracking doses and were working with manufacturers to create packaging that identifies shipments as first or second doses and will also include state instructions.
Why clear instructions weren’t previously provided to providers remains a mystery to us. But then so much about this vaccine rollout has left us perplexed.
We hope better days — and better organization at both the state and county levels — lie ahead.
Those eligible for COVID-19 vaccines can register online with Penn State Health (vaccine-scheduler.pennstatehealth.org) or by calling 844-774-8883. To register with UPMC, call 844-876-2822 between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. seven days a week or go to bit.ly/UPMCRegister.