A Hopeful Spring: Vaccine Successes and Outlook
Wednesdays with Woodward webinar
April 14, 2021
Brown University School of Public Health Dean Ashish Jha, M.D., MPH, joined this installment of the Wednesdays with Woodward webinar series to share his outlook for containing the global pandemic. Dr. Jha provided an update on the COVID-19 vaccine distribution, vaccine hesitancy in the population and the latest virus variants.
The State of the Pandemic
Dr. Jha presented an optimistic picture of America’s fight against COVID-19. While the virus will not go away anytime soon, he believes we are in the tail end of the emergency phase of the pandemic. “We will see a shift over the next few months, where the virus is something that we will continue to deal with, but it won’t dominate our lives,” Dr. Jha explained. Looking ahead to the summer, Dr. Jha expects life to look normal in many ways, including backyard barbecues, trips to the beach and summer travel. While some large indoor gatherings may continue to be a challenge, and children may not be vaccinated, he predicted that summer 2021 will look “more like summer 2019 than summer 2020.”
The B.1.1.7 variant (originally found in the U.K.) is now the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the U.S., Dr. Jha shared, noting that it makes up 70% to 80% of new infections in the U.S. This variant is much more contagious than the strain the country dealt with in 2020 and, evidence suggests, more deadly, according to Dr. Jha. However, while the U.S. has seen an increase in infections due to B.1.1.7, it has not seen the five- to tenfold “explosion” that other countries have seen when faced with this variant. Dr. Jha attributed this to the “extraordinary job” the U.S. is doing in vaccinating the population, which is preventing the variant from overwhelming hospitals and causing massive deaths.
Importantly, Dr. Jha explained that variants thrive in areas where there are large outbreaks. For this reason, he emphasized the importance of prioritizing not only national vaccination but also global vaccination efforts as the best recourse to manage the virus and its current and new potential variants. “Much of the world remains unvaccinated, and we live in a global economy,” he stated.
As of April 13, 2021, more than 28% of the U.S. population are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and about 80% of the population over age 65 have received at least one dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control. While Dr. Jha lauded these efforts, he emphasized that it is nowhere near enough to get the pandemic fully under control. By vaccinating another 15% to 20% of the U.S. population, he explained, we will have population immunity so infection numbers will drop enough to safely reopen large chunks of the economy. Until now, demand for vaccinations has outstripped supply, but Dr. Jha believes we are at an inflection point, due to the number of Americans who remain skeptical about vaccines. “The job of the public health community and all of us is to work with people where they are” to encourage vaccinations, he shared.
Considering the timeline for vaccinating children, Dr. Jha expected the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to grant Emergency Use Authorization for the Pfizer vaccine for children ages 12 to 15 years by June, potentially as early as May 2021. The timeline for vaccinating children under 12 is much less clear, he explained, though, with clinical trials underway, it could be by the end of summer or in fall 2021. Still, he believes schools can safely resume in-person schooling in fall 2021, with protections such as masks and social distancing in place. Dr. Jha pointed to expected low infection numbers across the country, vaccinations among teachers and staff, and the fact that children do not spread the virus as readily as adults as reasons that schools could safe reopen.
Resuming Life as Normal
We can expect significant changes to our social behaviors once we reach herd immunity, according to Dr. Jha. He believes most areas will lift mask mandates for outdoor activities in May, and for indoor activities by June. Still, some activities, such as concerts where there are large crowds cramped together, may continue to require additional protections, including mask wearing or rapid diagnostic tests, for people to safely attend. He explained that, for those eager to safely meet with groups indoors, without concern for anyone’s health and safety, the answer is straightforward – get everyone vaccinated.
Presented by the Travelers Institute, the Partnership for New York City, the MetroHartford Alliance, the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council and the Connecticut Business & Industry Association (CBIA).