As we reflect on the year behind us and make resolutions for the one ahead, the News4 I-Team asked experts on the COVID-19 front lines what they think we could have done better this year, and about their hopes for 2022.
All said there was one clear success in 2021: The vaccines are working, doing their job of preventing severe illness and death.
But the experts also shared what they view as missteps, things public health officials and the public must learn from if we want to turn the tide of this pandemic in 2022.
For Dr. Paul Offit, if there was one moment in the past year he wishes had been handled differently, it came in July, with a massive COVID-19 outbreak in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Roughly three-quarters of the nearly 500 people infected had been vaccinated. Four people had to be hospitalized and none died.
“That outbreak should have been celebrated as an example of why this vaccine works, right? Hospitalization rate at 1.2%. Great! Now, unfortunately, it wasn’t. The opposite happened,” said Offit, a member of the FDA’s Vaccine Advisory Committee.
Instead, Offit said the messaging surrounding that outbreak wrongly gave the impression that vaccines don’t work.
“If you have been vaccinated and you come in contact with this virus and you have a mild illness or an asymptomatic infection, that’s what the vaccine is supposed to do,” said Offit. “That’s a win!”
That’s just one way he said public health messaging failed in 2021, by setting too high of an expectation for what the vaccines can do.
“It’s hard for vaccines to prevent you from getting infected … they’re not like a force field,” said Dr. Taison Bell, a UVA Health infectious disease physician.
Dr. Bell said, in his view, that wasn’t the only big mistake on the pandemic messaging front in 2021.
“The assumption that because science is separate from politics, that it would stay separate from that in the public discourse,” said Bell. “Aggressively putting up guardrails between the two, I think that was something we would have benefited from and perhaps could have led us to a better situation than we are in now.”
He said public health leaders must do a better job breaking through the tough political barriers keeping many on the vaccine sidelines. As of this week, 61.8% of eligible Americans have been fully vaccinated. Bell is hopeful that would rise if more people from within vaccine-resistant communities speak out about why they got the shot.
“It kind of gives psychological safety and cover for someone to say, ‘OK, I, yeah know, I might still vote this way and I might feel this way and watch this news programming, but I can still get vaccinated,’” Bell said.
Vaccinating the unvaccinated is all the more critical now, as scientists like Heba Mostafa watch a new surge in hospitalizations and the rise of variants like omicron. She runs Johns Hopkins Medicine’s Molecular Virology Lab that helps track COVID-19 variants.
“There is a cause of concern because an increase in numbers in general, if it’s omicron or delta, will be likely associated with more cases and in vulnerable non-vaccinated population, it might be associated with more hospitalization,” said Mostafa.
Mostafa said, so far, omicron cases appear to be milder, especially among those who are fully vaccinated. That reaffirms that the vaccines are working, even as more fully vaccinated people become infected with the rapid rise and spread of omicron.
D.C.’s COVID-19 data shows that a huge spike in breakthough cases started two weeks ago. The latest data available online, from the week of Dec. 13, reports 1,661 new COVID infections among people who are fully vaccinated. That’s nearly three times the next closest week, back in August.
“The immunity does wane, which is why we’re continuing to push not only primary vaccination … but also now boosters to continue to maintain your immunity at a high level,” said Dr. Jinlene Chan, Deputy Secretary of Maryland’s Department of Health.
While most of the experts we spoke with predict even more coronavirus waves in the years ahead, Chan is hopeful the approval and availability of new treatments, coupled with vaccines, will help save more lives in 2022.
“All of those things collectively will really change the face of this pandemic for the better,” said Chan. “And that’s what we’re definitely looking forward to.”