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All together now / March 03, 2021
A couple of weeks ago I penned a column in this space on the waning influence of Southside and Southwest Virginia at the General Assembly — literally so, the two regions are almost certain to lose seats in the coming reappointment of Virginia’s election districts— and with that, I promised a follow-up column on what our area legislators could do about it. The diagnosis is easier than the cure, right? But since we took up that subject, a lot has happened in the world that demands our attention. So be it. The sequel will be ready when it’s ready.

Today, let’s talk about vaccinations.

Do you sometimes get the sense from following the news that there’s a dark cloud constantly hanging over whatever we do as a society and as a species to defeat COVID-19? I sure do. On the specific matter of the human species, we do seem to have a remarkable capacity with the virus to shoot ourselves in the face. (We are, after all, the only species on the planet that claims an unfettered right to bear arms that make bang-bang sounds.) The ongoing refusal among some people to take basic precautions against COVID-19 such as mask wearing and social distancing — because they think the virus is a hoax, or a thing that only affects someone else, or really not all that dangerous despite a death toll of 516,000 Americans and rising — does make a person despair occasionally for the future of the human race. But you know what? To heck with all that. The big news is that we’ve got a clear shot at conquering COVID-19, and the path to victory is unfolding as we speak.

No day should be complete without first pausing to take stock of the tremendous scientific progress that has delivered multiple vaccines around the world in less than a year, a monumental achievement for humankind that has been aided by many hands making the work of vaccine research and development swift and light (in scientific terms, anyway.) Advances in gene science have especially played a major role in the development of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, the first two formulas authorized for emergency use by the FDA, although the other types out there — the newly approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the AstraZeneca shots in widespread use in Europe, even the Chinese and Russian vaccines — all have been shown to provide immunity to recipients, to varying degrees. It’s not entirely clear how long the immunity will last, and there’s already talk about the need to develop booster shots to combat variants of the virus that are developing as we speak, and various other problems will surely surface in the future. But rather than despair over what-ifs, let’s dwell on the core reality: we can, with due skill, urgency and commitment, vaccinate enough people around the country and the world to achieve herd immunity, thus depriving the novel coronavirus of new populations to support its spread, and drive a stake into this horrible disease, burying it once and for all.

It’s an unprecedented undertaking, true. But again, on balance the news is more good than bad. Take the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. It rolled out just this week, and Merck — a J&J competitor — announced Tuesday that it will join the production of the vaccine, multiplying its availability practically overnight. Not coincidentally, the Biden Administration announced Tuesday that vaccines will be available to all adults in the U.S. by the end of May, another tremendous leap — the expectation previously was that people would have to wait until July. This is a very, very big deal. A worthy follow-up would be to license to production of any and all vaccine formulas to pharmaceutical facilities around the world. (Tom Frieden and Marine Buissonnière, former director of the Centers for Disease Control director and global health advisor, respectively, have written an excellent piece on this very subject for Politico. It came out Tuesday under the headline, “The U.S. Has the Power to Tamp Down Coronavirus Variants — If We’re Willing to Use It.”)

The pessimism and persistent sense of gloom that has greeted the rollout of vaccines, at least in some quarters (the media and some public health officials are not blameless here) runs contrary to the enthusiasm for getting the shots that you can see with your own two eyes. This is a politically conservative area, with more people who voted for Donald Trump than didn’t, and I’ll be damned if I’ve seen widespread opposition to getting the shots. On the contrary, demand far outpaces supply. I hope we don’t reach some version of silly season where people pooh-pooh certain types of vaccines out of a perception that they don’t work as well as others, but right now, I would venture to guess that people are pretty eager to get secure their place in line for whatever is available. Will there be holdouts? Of course. But do we have a chance to inoculate enough people to shield those who won’t get the vaccine — or can’t, for existing health reasons, a group that comprises a very real share of the population. Can we do it? Methinks the answer is yes. It’s massive lift, obviously, but not an impossible one.

If you are holding out for one vaccine formula over another, please reconsider your position. Many will cite the FDA findings on the efficacy of each vaccine type, with varying degrees of relevance and accuracy — 95 percent? 72 percent? Another number? They do all get jumbled together — but consider this: whichever vaccine you get, it will pretty much eliminate the risk of death from COVID-19 and in all likelihood prevent you from contracting a severe case of the disease. That’s one heckuva good reason to make your appointment for a shot as soon as possible. An even more pressing factor to keep in mind is that speed is a much bigger priority in the fight against covid than fine differences in vaccine efficacies. The 72 percent protection against moderate disease offered by the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is excellent protection, even if that percentage is somewhat lower than what the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines offer. (There’s evidence to suggest that a second dose of the single-dose J&J vaccine would work every bit as well as the two-dose Moderna and Pfizer shots.) The key thing, and the point can’t be stated enough, is to reach the population before the virus does. With mass immunity, COVID-19 withers and dies. Not more people dying. The virus itself. Get your shots, everyone, and let’s make it happen.

If finally, against all evidence and reason, you think this whole vaccination business is just a bunch of nonsense or a Chinese conspiracy or else you watch too much YouTube with Robert Kennedy Jr. on the channel (truly one of the most horrible people in America, and the competition for the honor is ridiculously stiff), then at least stop to consider who has gotten the vaccine. Sports legends like Dr. J and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and entertainers like Tyler Perry and Willie Nelson. 78-year-old Smokin’ Joe Biden. Donald and Melania Trump. (“Former President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump quietly received the Covid-19 vaccine at the White House in January, a Trump advisor told NBC News on Monday,” reported NBC News, naturally.) Polling has shown Republicans are far more hesitant to receive the vaccine than Democrats and independents. So what gives now, people? Your fearless leader has spoken, albeit “quietly,” on the question of whether you should get vaccinated. What else are you waiting for?

Let’s all make this thing happen — appointments were available Tuesday at CVS stores in Clarksville and South Boston, and opportunities to get the vaccine should scale up dramatically in coming weeks and days. Vaccination is cool, hip, dope, it’s for real men, it’s for whatever group you identify with, and it’s the key to saving countless lives of our neighbors, friends and loved ones. What else is there to say on the subject?

Only this: 2020 was hell. 2021 doesn’t have to be that way. We’re not out of the woods — keep wearing those masks, people — but the bread crumbs are placed in the forest to see us through to the other side. It’s open fields ahead, if we just choose to go there.

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