Editor’s Note: Janice Blanchard MD PhD is a professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at George Washington University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The summer got off to a fun start. As vaccines became increasingly accessible, many of us had a sense of relief. But somehow America has hit a wall: Only around 50% of the country is fully vaccinated, well below the target set by President Biden earlier in the summer. On Tuesday, however, the Biden Administration made a big announcement. They are once again recommending that masks be worn inside in areas where rates of transmission are considered “high” or “substantial,” and on Thursday, they are expected to announce that federal workers and contractors will be required to be vaccinated or get tested regularly, according to CNN reporting. This follows closely New York City and California’s plans to do the same for government workers.
These new requirements make a lot of sense to me as an emergency medicine physician. The threat of increased infections is real due the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant – I have seen it firsthand. As the first day of summer came around, weeks had passed, and I had not seen a single Covid case. Now, I am treating patients with the disease daily.
This time, things seem different. Last year, it was the elderly and patients with co-morbid conditions who came into my care, gravely ill from the virus. Now, the cases I see are mainly among young healthy people, some who are presenting with life threatening complications due to the virus.
Treating a young person who is critically ill from a preventable illness is particularly heartbreaking. Most are unvaccinated. While those who are vaccinated are still at risk, they generally have less severe disease.
I worry about how we can get over this wall. Sadly, I fear that only experiencing the disease in themselves or others close to them will be what changes the mind of the unvaccinated. This is a terrible public health strategy.
The Biden Administration’s plan seems to be the only logical step for addressing the persistent challenge of vaccinating a population thus far reluctant to get immunized. Vaccinations have to be incorporated as part of normal social behavior to overcome the pervasive problem of hesitancy.
Adding a vaccine requirement helps do this. Just look at the history of the measles vaccine. During the Carter administration, when vaccine mandates were required for school children, vaccination rates in this population soared to 90% and public health officials saw a clear path towards eradication.
Many skeptics are already gearing up to oppose the presumed restrictions that mask requirements and vaccine mandates impose. But perhaps they forgot what things were like last summer. It was bad. Hospitals had shortages of ICU beds. Caregivers faced inadequate personal protective equipment. People died alone in their hospital rooms.
Lately, I have been feeling a sense of dread as I recall these past experiences. As the world starts creeping back to “normal,” there is something deep, dark, and destructive lingering on the horizon. I hear the song from Jaws that played just as the shark attacks the unwitting swimmer or diver enjoying their vacation in that big blue ocean.
Maybe I have a flair for the dramatic. But remember, when the pandemic initially hit the United States, it was reported in just one man in his 30s in January 2020. In March 2020, the former president was concerned that 21 disembarking cruise ship passengers would cause the number of cases in our country to double. Covid now seems an ubiquitous part of our everyday life with over 34 million cases and 600,000 deaths. The number of new cases has the potential to rapidly increase, particularly as the Delta variant has become the predominant strain of Covid now being transmitted in the United States. As one public health expert announced, Delta is Covid on steroids.
We had it bad last spring. I am simply not ready to go back to how things were. Vaccine mandates and mask requirements make sense to me. Masks help protect us all. Let’s all pitch in to end this pandemic.