By Chris Adams
Sept. 24, 2020 – The coronavirus isn’t going away anytime soon, meaning that Americans will need to remain masked up and socially distant until late 2021 – even with an approved vaccine, according to one of the nation’s top infectious disease specialists.
In a briefing with National Press Foundation fellows, Dr. William Schaffner warned that the nation could be in for a “twindemic” of traditional flu and COVID-19 and that the pubic isn’t prepared for that. He also said people have been lulled into a sense of complacency that an approved vaccine will allow a quick return to normalcy. It won’t.
“This vaccine has been so enthusiastically anticipated that I don’t think the pubic has really thought about it,” said Schaffner, a professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and also a long-serving member of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which makes vaccine recommendations.
Schaffner is also medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, a nonprofit education and research organization that has been urging people to maintain their regular vaccinations – including for flu – amid the COVID pandemic.
“During the lockdown period … we did a lot of telemedicine, but most of us haven’t figured out yet how to immunize through the computer,” he said. “You actually have to show up in person and it’s clear that routine child immunization rate – those are the ones that have been tracked the most – really took a substantial worrisome dip during that lockdown period.”
But adults are also at risk. Overall, routine vaccinations have declined by as much as 95% during the pandemic, according to NFID, raising the specter of increased illnesses from everything from pneumonia to tetanus to shingles.
Public health authorities are urging adults not only to get the flu shot – thus avoiding the twindemic Schaffner fears – but also to catch up on other routine vaccinations they have missed.
As for the coronavirus vaccine: Once it is available, the rollout period will last months, and there is a substantial share of the population that is not inclined to get the vaccine – or at least not right away.
“It’s not a magic wand. It won’t make the virus disappear,” Schaffner said. His prediction: By the end of September 2021, people might be able to start taking their masks off and relaxing social distancing rules.
Among the reasons for his year-long timetable: Anti-vaccination activists are already disparaging an as-yet-unapproved vaccine, as well as the rushed process to create one. The activists won’t get the vaccine and they’ll scare off some people who might otherwise have done so. Beyond that, vaccine effectiveness is not 100%, meaning that 30% or 40% or 50% of the people who are vaccinated won’t be protected from COVID-19.
There are also huge logistical hurdles to clear. Since more than one vaccine is likely to be approved, the medical community will need to track who got which vaccine and who is due for their second dose in an expected two-dose regimen.
It is vital that patients do not mix-and-match different vaccines produced by different manufacturers, he warned.
“We will have to have an enormously complex record-keeping system, so they know exactly what I got and when I got it,” he said.
With his long association with the CDC, Schaffner is dismayed that the agency has come under such heated political fire – and been shoved aside as the White House controls COVID policy.
“I call myself the president of the CDC fan club,” he said. “Everything that has happened to the CDC regarding political interference has really broken my heart.”