By MARSHA MERCER
Images of the fall of Afghanistan and the resulting chaos as tens of thousands of Afghans desperately try to escape the Taliban have shaken many Americans. How, after 20 years of war, could this happen so quickly?
Here at home, the delta variant tightens its deadly grip on the unvaccinated, overwhelming some hospitals and raising death tolls. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines show signs of waning effectiveness. How could this happen?
The short, unsatisfying answer in both cases is circumstances change.
But unlike in Afghanistan where the Taliban’s sudden takeover was a shock, the government insists it has a plan for the next phase of the war against COVID-19.
President Joe Biden and the nation’s health experts Wednesday outlined steps to pressure the 85 million Americans who still have not rolled up their sleeves to do so and to provide booster shots starting with the 150 million adults who are fully vaccinated with the Pfizer and Moderna.
The federal government already has vaccination requirements for federal workers and contractors, medical staff at veterans’ hospitals, active-duty military, reservists and National Guard. Biden now will require vaccinations of all workers who care for Medicare or Medicaid nursing home patients as a condition of federal healthcare payments.
Biden also extended until year’s end federal reimbursement to states for National Guard personnel engaged in COVID-19 emergency activities. He praised health systems, universities and private businesses that require vaccinations and urged others to follow suit.
And he took aim at governors who intimidate school officials over mask mandates, saying federal funds can pay school personnel, if needed.
Although vaccines were initially touted as a two-and-done shield from COVID-19, they were developed before the highly transmissible delta variant became dominant. Recent data indicate the vaccines still protect against severe illness, hospitalization and death. They are not as effective against delta as the earlier virus, though, and protection decreases over time.
“Having reviewed the most recent data, it is now our clinical judgment that the time to lay out a plan for COVID-19 boosters is now,” Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy told reporters.
“The plan is for every adult to get a booster shot eight months after you got your second shot,” Biden said.
Pending approval from the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control’s outside panel of experts, the booster program is slated to begin the week of Sept. 20.
At that time, adults fully vaccinated before Jan. 20 with doses from Pfizer or Moderna will be eligible for a booster. Health care providers, residents of nursing homes and long-term facilities, and the elderly will be at the front of the line. It’s likely those who received the single Johnson and Johnson shot will also need a booster, but authorities are waiting on more data to decide.
Only those with compromised immune systems are currently receiving boosters. The rest of us can safely wait, officials said.
The boosters will be free and given regardless of insurance or immigration status. The government intends to use the 80,000 locations in place to deliver the boosters. About 90% of Americans live within five miles of a vaccination site.
Some medical professionals worry the dual track of persuading the unvaccinated to roll up their sleeves while providing boosters to the fully vaccinated may confuse the public. Some world leaders say the United States should not offer a third shot while many around the world have not had their first.
But the administration insists we have enough vaccines to inoculate those at home and abroad. The United States has donated more doses of COVID-19 vaccine than all the other countries in the world combined, Biden said, adding we have pledged to give away 600 million doses.
“The threat of the delta virus remains real. But we are prepared. We have the tools. We can do this,” Biden said.
At such a bleak time, it’s encouraging to see the government be straight about the latest data and adjust its plans based on changing circumstances. Doing so should help restore Americans’ trust in their government.
The government sets the strategy. Vaccinations, masks and boosters are our weapons. But each of us will need to take personal responsibility if we are to win the war on COVID-19.
©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.