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As COVID-19 Cases Fall, Pandemic Expert Urges Americans To 'Take The Lessons Of This Seriously'

Lisa Taylor receives a COVID-19 vaccination from RN Jose Muniz as she takes part in a vaccine study at Research Centers of America on Aug. 07, 2020 in Hollywood, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Lisa Taylor receives a COVID-19 vaccination from RN Jose Muniz as she takes part in a vaccine study at Research Centers of America on Aug. 07, 2020 in Hollywood, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The last time Here & Now spoke to pandemic expert and Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Laurie Garrett, she said “the gates of Hades have been opened” as the virus ripped through the U.S.

This was in November of 2020, just after the massive, maskless Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota ignited the spread of the virus around the country.

But as Garrett joins the show once again, the U.S. has encouraging news to celebrate: 50% of American adults are fully vaccinated and nearly two-thirds have a single dose, putting the country closer to President Biden’s goal of 70% by early July.

While COVID-19 cases are dropping and vaccines are working better than originally imagined, “that does not by any means indicate that we’re out of the woods or that everything can go back to exactly the way it was in, say, September 2019,” Garrett points out.

Many states have ended, or are close to ending, pandemic-related restrictions.

Although many Americans are itching to get back to normalcy, Garrett cautions to use “common sense” as the country reopens and concerning variants continue to spread. And she says to keep in mind that the rest of the world does not have high vaccination rates like the U.S.

“I think we’re tempting fate if as Americans,” she says, “we just jump right off that cliff and go right back as if the whole world was our oyster.”

Interview Highlights

On wearing a mask while being fully vaccinated

“Certainly in a number of different contexts, I still wear a mask. I still think there’s reason for caution when you’re in a crowded setting. People you don’t know anything about, you have no idea whether or not they’ve been vaccinated, how many people may be in their home environment or their work environment who are unvaccinated and so on. And we’re not in a situation where people are waving around their vaccine cards or wearing special badges or anything that [Rep.] Marjorie Taylor Greene claims. So we have to have some common sense.

“Now, there is one thing I was very concerned about, and at least one new study has set my mind partially at ease on this one. And that is this: With polio, we had the situation with the Salk vaccine where individuals were vaccinated and protected against disease [and] the kids no longer got sick, but they did carry virus in their bodies and passed it in their feces. And so the community at large remained at risk until the Sabin vaccine was invented, which was oral and which sterilized the virus out of the [gastrointestinal] tract and therefore stopped community spread. I was worried with COVID that we might have a situation where individuals were protected against hospitalization and death, but they could still carry virus. The very good news is a new study shows very high levels of IgG, immunoglobulin antibodies that neutralize the virus, are in the nose and throat of vaccinated individuals. And so, in fact, they seem to be protected against being spreaders. So my initial concern about continuing to wear a mask was I wanted to protect others.”

On the Olympic schedule for July and August

“Well, of course, it’s complicated canceling the Olympics. There’s only one body that can do that. That’s the International Olympic Committee. And the IOC is very loath to cancel anything because their whole income is about television broadcast rights. And so the IOC will have its own reasons for resisting any efforts. I saw [infectious disease expert Dr. Michael Osterholm’s] call [for the World Health Organization to hold an emergency meeting on the Olympics] and I thought, well, that’s all well and good, but it’s not the real world. The real world is that WHO has no influence whatsoever.”

On her concerns about variant strains in the U.S.

“I think that America is very eager to go back to being the America it was before COVID — back on airplanes, taking vacations, business meetings, conferences, movie theaters, the whole thing. But, you know, we don’t exist in a planet that is protected. We exist perhaps in a country that is approaching protection — 50% is still a long way from the 80 to 90% we need, but it’s getting there.

“But we are part of the world and the world is largely unvaccinated. The world is largely unprotected. You know, the Brazil P.1 strain, the South African strain, all these different variant forms of virus have different attributes that make them either more rapid spreaders or more lethal experiences and escape mutations that can get around your immune system.

“… Until we come up with mechanisms that transfer the technology and the capacity to vaccinate, the supplies necessary, the syringes, everything to countries from Chad to Cambodia from Peru to Mexico, and see the whole planet get immunized, until then, we’re not out of the woods. … Wherever there is rapid spread of virus going on in a hot spot, there is the high probability — even, I would say the certainty — that mutant strains will arise. And the question is simply, do we have confidence that none of these mutants will ever be capable of getting around all of our vaccines?”

On whether this pandemic better prepared the world for another pandemic in the future

“Right now the World Health Assembly is convening. This is the governing body of the World Health Organization, and top of the agenda is exactly that question. Can we prepare a better system of pandemic surveillance and response? Can we do better with the next one? There’s talk about creating an international treaty that would oblige the signers to the treaty to technology transfer to poor countries, to full transparency in an epidemic and so on. Will any of these things work? Will any of it matter?

“What I sense already in America is that the vast majority of the once hyperventilating news media and the political establishment have already started to put the epidemic in the rearview mirror. And this is a pattern. Every single epidemic and pandemic I have been involved in, which is well over 35 of them, has seen this cycle where we go into a state of hyperventilation and then to a state of complete somnambulant and amnesia. And I can sense that already building in America and I think it’s the responsibility of all sort of politically motivated individuals who care about these things to put the pressure on at the local level and all the way up to say, ‘no, no, no, no. This time we can’t repeat this. We can’t allow ourselves to be caught with our pants down again.’

“We have got to take the lessons of this seriously. We need to really analyze: Why did America screw this up so badly, what did we do right and what can we learn from all of this that makes us better prepared for the next one?”


Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Jill RyanSerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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