On Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci cautioned against a premature declaration of victory against COVID-19 even as he shared that vaccinated Americans should feel reasonably safe celebrating upcoming holidays. His words echo similar advice offered recently by CDC Rochelle Walensky and other experts as much of the US sees coronavirus cases decline.
Over the past week, several news outlets tackled the question of what we might anticipate as winter arrives and what we need to do to be adaptive to changing circumstances:
- Tara Parker-Pope with The New York Times offered practical advice for individuals in Friday’s edition of its Coronavirus Briefing;
- The Daily podcast dedicated an episode to the state of the pandemic on Thursday;
- The Washington Post featured an opinion by Leana Wen, an expert in public health and health policy, on what is needed to put the pandemic truly behind us.
Each piece is worth reading (or listening to) for those making personal decisions about what to do to keep themselves safe, choices that can also make faith community events and activities safer too. The following points are made repeatedly in these and other articles on the current and future state of the pandemic.
- Things are starting to get better again, but caution is still warranted. Overall, the situation in the US is improving, but some experts anticipate a winter resurgence. Low vaccination rates, changes in personal behavior (moving inside, dropping safety protocols), and the threat of a new variant are all variables on experts’ minds. While we know more about how COVID-19 spreads, reliable forecasting remains elusive.
- Vaccination matters. Vaccination makes a quantitative difference in almost every way that matters, and the presence of unvaccinated people in an event you are participating in should impact your planning. The expected emergency use approval of a vaccine for younger children (5-to-11 year-olds) will help given time and robust adoption, as will efforts to deliver more vaccines globally.
- This is a time to be adaptive. Whether you are considering personal travel or planning a communal event (i.e., Christmas Eve worship), it is best to have a backup plan. We are still in a season of unpredictability where rigid planning can lead to disappointment and unnecessary risk. None of us are living in a bubble. When case numbers are high in the community, even a layered mitigation strategy can fail.
- Masks matter, but they are not all the same. Scientists researching the Alpha variant were able to show that it transmitted more efficiently as an aerosol than previous strains, and they expect that Delta is even better. A growing body of research shows that while any mask is better than none, cloth and basic surgical masks are not nearly as effective as those rated N95 or KN95, especially against a highly efficient virus.
- Plan to use rapid testing strategically around travel and events. The prevalence of breakthrough cases during the Delta surge has led to more conversation about the availability of rapid testing. The mitigation strategy has been popular in other countries and could help reduce the disease’s asymptomatic spread. Last week, the Biden Administration announced a plan to increase the number of at-home rapid tests to 200 million per month by December. As they become available, consider how you might use them to mitigate risk for you and events you participate in.
- Hope is on the horizon. Last week, pharmaceutical company Merck announced that they would be seeking FDA approval for the first antiviral pill intended to treat COVID-19. In clinical trials, it cut hospitalizations and death by about 50 percent, and other similar treatments are in the pipeline. Treatments like these could help to save lives and keep hospitals from being overwhelmed.
In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul wrote, “We even take pride in our problems because we know that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”
Despite the challenges posed to us by the Delta variant, we are making real progress against this disease. And as people of faith, we can trust that the problems we have faced will, with God’s help, produce endurance, character, and hope.
Over these many months, our United Methodist churches have been sacrificial in adopting safety protocols for the common good. Along with similar actions of others, we have helped to bend the curve of this virus to give scientists the necessary time to study and develop treatments to save lives.
It may indeed be possible to approach the various fall and winter celebrations with more enthusiasm this year than last, but we should be very cautious about letting down our guard. As we plan how to celebrate some holidays in person again, let us remain committed to loving our neighbors as we take full advantage of all that we have learned, and the gifts science has delivered.
Patrick Scriven serves as Director of Communications and Young People’s Ministries for the Pacific Northwest Conference and is the convener and communicator for the GNW COVID-19 Response Team.