The COVID-19 Pandemic: Another surge, vaccines for all, and pandemic poetryApr 12, 2021
Not a good pandemic week in Colorado. The positive news of rising vaccination rates and falling hospitalizations among those 65+ is now counterbalanced by indications of a “fourth surge” as the epidemic curve, after hovering on a plateau for several weeks, has definitely taken off. On Friday, the number of people hospitalized across the state with COVID-19 exceeded 400 for the first time since mid-February. There is more bad news: the B.1.1.7 variant has now become dominant in Colorado and the P.1 variant (originally identified in Brazil) has now been isolated in Colorado. This variant may be less responsive to current vaccines.
The data are clear: the surge is driven by middle-aged and younger Coloradans. Hospitalizations have dropped sharply in those 70+ but risen at younger ages. The causes of the surge are likely multiple: policy changes over the past month and premature relaxation of behaviors by non-vaccinated Coloradans. We still have a difficult month ahead as we wait for the benefits of an ever-higher rate of vaccination in the state.
While Colorado endures this temporary surge, much of the world awaits vaccines. I am reading Preventing the Next Pandemic by Peter Hotez, a distinguished pediatrician, vaccinologist and founding dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine. Peter is a leading spokesperson on the need for vaccines and in offering truth against misinformation spread by opponents of vaccination. The title of his 2018 book exemplified his efforts: Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism: My Journey as a Vaccine Scientist, Pediatrician, and Autism Dad. Peter participated in the September 14, 2020, episode of the school’s collaborative series with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Much of what he said then about vaccine hesitancy and misinformation holds true today.
In his new book, Peter builds on his experience as the U.S. Science Envoy to the Middle East and North Africa to address vaccine diplomacy. He uses stories, many coming from his own extensive experience, to describe how vaccines have made a difference in the world. His message is clear: the COVID-19 pandemic is the time for vaccine diplomacy. Quoting: “It (vaccine diplomacy) represents one of our most noble pursuits—science for the benefit of humankind—and a vision for hope and better world,” and “Despite such successes, both science and scientists are too often pushed to the margins of international affairs. This is a missed opportunity. Now we need to elevate the role of science and expand vaccine diplomacy as a central alliance between nations.”
Peter’s book is timely. There are still billions worldwide with little immediate prospect for vaccination or for high-level care if ill. For example, India, a global manufacturer of medicines and vaccines, is currently flailing. A recent New York Times story describes the failures of India’s leaders to acknowledge and take on the resurgent pandemic. The country’s massive population and its density are a setup for rapid rise of its epidemic curve. Even though India is a leading manufacturer of vaccines for the world, its own population has largely not been vaccinated, leading to a national vaccination gap with global implications. Vaccine exports from India are now restricted as the country addresses its vaccination gap.
Shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic began, I reached out to George Sparks, President & CEO of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and a member of the school’s Advisory Board, concerning potential collaborative activities. We saw multiple points of intersection but focused on communicating about the pandemic to the public, a natural point of collaboration building from the school’s content knowledge and networks of experts and the museum’s facility in reaching the public. The resulting series, hosted through the museum’s Institute for Science and Policy, came to an end last week after 30 episodes. This last episode looked back across the year, returning to some of the prior speakers for their reflections on how the pandemic had evolved and changed lives.
The lead-off was Bobby LeFebre, Colorado’s poet laureate. His words about the pandemic, written across the pandemic year, were powerful—some are below, but listen to Bobby here. The 30 episodes were all recorded and summarized. A compendium of the summaries is available, offering still-useful insights on many topics and serving as a reminder of the pandemic’s first year. I thank the Denver Museum of Nature and Science for collaborating with the Colorado School of Public Health and offer my personal thanks to the team from the museum’s Institute for Science & Policy—Kristan, Nichole, and Trent.
Some excerpts of the poetry by Bobby LeFebre, Colorado's poet laureate:
The sirens are sounding
The screams are loud
The virus has packed its bags;
World traveler without a passport
Borders are man-made
Walls cannot contain life on the move
But that’s another story
Asian businesses were empty before streets
The toilet paper is gone
Panic begets panic...
Let’s talk about the poor
30 million uninsured
Ends meet, public transportation to get there
Self-quarantine. Privilege. Paradox.
Blue collars can’t work remotely
Hourly wages side-eye the salaried
Go ahead and cancel school
Child care is a killer too
Industrialized without a heart
Developed without a conscience
Blames our bodies instead of broken systems
Replace wings with worry
Trade the social for the solitary
Make an enemy of touch
Distance becomes our god
Six-feet apart running away from six-feet-under
We forget how to look each other in the eye
Survival becomes a dreary song we play on repeat
Hands chapped from reading one too many headlines
Then slowly, together, we attempt to construct a new language knowing words like our leaders are failing us
We begin to speak in statistics but here the numbers are lives; the percentages are people
There may be good days, but we collectively are not good.
The earth is shedding her skin
Democracy’s ribs are showing
Hope and fear play tug of war inside of us
Uncertainty is a vulture circling overhead
But if today is an ending, tomorrow is a beginning.
Tomorrow is a promise in the distance, beckoning us to find our way home.
Jonathan Samet, MD, MS
Dean, Colorado School of Public Health