Our lives have been turned upside down, the economy is sputtering and more than 1.8 million people have died — 350,000 of them in the US, more than any other country in the world.
As a nation, we’re exhausted. American hospitals and health care workers are overwhelmed. The grief and trauma are piling up. The vaccine rollout is behind schedule, a new strain of the virus has emerged and experts fear a post-holiday explosion of new cases and hospitalizations.
The next few months will likely be dark and painful. But there’s a promise of light on the horizon. With two vaccines approved in the US and more on the way, there’s hope for a gradual return to normalcy — whatever that looks like in a post-pandemic world.
Here’s what to expect in this new year.
The next few months will be rough
We’ve had a tough holiday season — and things aren’t expected to get better for at least the next few weeks.
In December alone in the US, we lost more than 77,000 people. It was the deadliest month of the pandemic so far, and health officials fear the ripple effects of holiday gatherings will soon make things worse.
Government officials are preparing for dire scenarios. Health care workers are setting up rooms for sick patients in hallways, lobbies and parking lots.
In hard-hit Southern California, ICUs are at capacity and officials have extended stay-at-home orders. Atlanta hospitals are over capacity, with some people waiting days to be admitted. Georgia’s governor opened an overflow coronavirus unit at a downtown convention center.
The vaccine rollout has been slow
First the good news: Sleeves are rolling up across the country for the highly effective Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
Some 13 million doses have been distributed so far, but we’ve fallen short of the goal to vaccinate 20 million people by January 1.
Supply constraints and logistical challenges have complicated administering a vaccine in the throes of a pandemic that has pummeled health departments nationwide.
It’s a delicate process. Pharmaceutical companies must churn out tens of millions of doses of the vaccines, which each have specific storage requirements and schedules.
Some states have said they don’t have enough supplies of the Pfizer vaccine while the manufacturer reported millions of unclaimed doses, adding to the confusion.
The vaccines won’t protect people right away
The availability of two vaccines by 2021 is a stunning achievement when you consider we barely understood this virus a year ago. And it’s a hopeful sign we’re close to beating back a plague that brought the world to its knees.
But the vaccine process will take months and it’s still important for everyone to wear masks and social distance until we reach herd immunity — that magical point when so many people are inoculated that the virus has nowhere left to spread.
So don’t put on your party shoes just yet. For starters, the vaccines don’t offer instant protection, and they only go into effect after the second dose.
But it’s still not clear whether the vaccines prevent spread of the virus. The Pfizer vaccine, for example, is effective at preventing symptomatic illness and severe disease. But studies haven’t looked at whether it prevents someone from carrying coronavirus and spreading it to others. It’s possible someone could get the vaccine but still be an asymptomatic carrier.
In short, our behavior will keep determining the trajectory of this pandemic.
Scientists are alarmed by a new strain of virus
Health experts are rushing to slow the spread of Covid-19 before more strains complicate vaccination efforts.
It’s unclear how one Colorado man got infected with the new strain because he had no known history of travel. That has brought concerns that the variant has been spreading in the US undetected and that more cases will emerge.
Pfizer and Moderna are testing their shots to determine whether they’re effective against the variant.
But many health officials have downplayed concerns that the vaccines won’t work against the new strain.
“I don’t think it will break the vaccine,” said Trevor Bedford, an associate professor at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
But there’s hope of herd immunity in 2021
While vaccinations and masks will go a long way in taming a raging pandemic, the relief will be gradual.
Outbreaks will recede as vaccines reach most Americans, giving health care workers more breathing room to help the most vulnerable.
“By the time we get to the early fall, we will have enough good herd immunity to be able to really get back to some strong semblance of normality — schools, theaters, sports events, restaurants,” Fauci said.
Just imagine: Americans going to the movies, going out to hear live music and meeting friends inside restaurants without looking at everyone as a potential threat.
It sounds like heaven.