There may finally be light at the end of the tunnel for the COVID-19 pandemic, as cases fall and vaccinations ramp up across the country. But the presence of new strains of the virus could wipe away all of that progress – making it more important than ever to follow public health protocols to stop the spread.
Here’s the good news and bad news about the state of the pandemic in D.C. – and how you can ensure we have more good than bad going forward.
The good news:
More people are getting vaccinated, the number of cases is dropping and the number of deaths is leveling off. Cases have started to decline nationwide, with the rolling average of new confirmed infections down 29 percent from two weeks ago. Hospitalizations are down more than one-fifth nationwide in that same time frame. In the District, there are about a quarter fewer daily cases than two weeks ago, with D.C.’s overall trends closely resembling national ones.
The number of virus-related deaths has remained fairly constant in both D.C. and nationwide, but deaths tend to be a lagging indicator. In other words, epidemiologists predict deaths will decline in a few weeks about as fast as infections and hospitalizations are falling now.
The vaccine rollout is beginning to shake off its rough start. More people have now gotten at least one shot since mid-December than have tested positive throughout the entire pandemic. In D.C., nearly one in 10 residents have gotten at least one dose, which is similar to the nationwide vaccine rate.
The bad news:
Even though cases are going down and deaths have stopped climbing, tens of thousands of people are still getting sick and dying from COVID-19 every day.
The presence of new, more-contagious variants of COVID-19 threatens to send cases skyrocketing again and could imperil the effectiveness of the vaccine rollout. These new variants are right at D.C.’s doorstep: the U.K. variant was detected in Northern Virginia, and the South African variant has begun to spread in Maryland.
These new strains could unravel the progress that has been made – or, at the least, make further progress harder. Both variants spread faster, and the strain originally found in South Africa may be harder to stop with the vaccines currently available. If the public becomes lax with mask wearing and social distancing or the federal government fails to improve vaccine distribution, things could get worse.
There is also still a glaring racial disparity in who is able to get the vaccine. On both a national level and in D.C., people of color are vastly underrepresented among vaccine recipients – for example, only 5 percent of total shots nationally have gone to Black Americans.
When the District opened up appointments for residents aged 65 and older, the majority of signups came from White seniors, while very few Black and Latino people got slots, according to DCist. The pandemic has hit people of color especially hard across the country and in D.C., exacerbating existing disparities in access to health care and treatment. The District and the country need to take concrete steps to repair that trend and ensure equity of access.
What you can do:
Wear a mask. If there were ever a time to buckle down, it’s now. The new variants are circulating, and it is only a matter of time before they become prevalent, which could throw a wrench in the pandemic finally subsiding. Wearing a mask and practicing social distancing remain some of the most basic and effective ways to protect yourself and others.
How you wear your mask and the kind of mask you wear also matter in stopping the spread. Double-masking, for example, is an option that National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci recently expressed support for. Alone, a surgical mask is about 60 to 70 percent effective at filtering droplets, and a cloth mask is about 50 percent effective. But layering a tight-fitting cloth mask on top of a surgical mask could be as high as 91 percent effective. A KN-95 mask – which is nearly as protective as the N-95 masks used by health care workers – is another great option, according to researchers.
Students, especially those living in Foggy Bottom, generally have advantages and privileges that many people do not have – so students should use them to ensure they are keeping the community safe. For example, the University provides free, on-demand testing that takes minutes – so pick a time every week to get a test. Limit gatherings and unnecessary travel as much as you can because lots of people do not have that option.
And, when it becomes available to you, get the vaccine as soon as you can.
Andrew Sugrue, a junior majoring in political communication, is the contributing opinions editor.