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  • Andrew Logue

Are We Close to Reaching the End? Vaccination Progress Speeds Up

Over a year after the first confirmed COVID-19 case in the United States, there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel as wide-scale vaccine rollout occurs across the country. The rollout of the vaccine and policies surrounding it, like virus mitigation, has mostly at the discretion of the states. President Biden has, however, taken a more involved approach in his response than former President Donald Trump. He has already achieved his goal of getting at least 100 million people 100 million people vaccinated within his first 100 days, with over 115 million doses administered as of March 20. The country averages 2 million vaccine doses administered per day and federal regulators have given emergency approval to the Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines to encourage wider rollout. President Biden has further stated that anyone who desires a vaccine will be able to obtain one starting May 1, with a hope for increased normalcy by July 4.

The story of vaccine rollout has been one of varying success across the country, depending on the response of specific states and localities. Of states with a population over 5 million, Wisconsin has the greatest per capita vaccination rates, with 12% of their population having received a first dose (the bottom and top of the list are dominated by small states owing to small sample size bias). However, on the ground, Wisconsin’s vaccination policies have been controversial and have left many residents disappointed. Generally, states in the South have been the slowest to get their residents vaccinated, with Tennessee having only vaccinated 9.7% of their population.

Rollout in Wisconsin

Wisconsin has followed federal recommendations with a phased response. It is currently in stage 1b. This means that the state currently recommends that frontline workers, residents, and staff of nursing homes, police officers, correctional facility workers, and adults over 65 be the first groups eligible. Once this group is fully vaccinated, they recommend that educators, people on long-term Medicaid, select public-facing workers, non-frontline essential healthcare workers, and people living and working in congregate living settings be the next to receive the vaccine. They have simultaneously been vaccinating some lower priority residents but at a slower rate. The state has already opened 1,200 mass vaccination sites, with hospitals being the first among them. The massive number of sites has no doubt been an ingredient in the state’s success in vaccinating its population. Despite this, some have found themselves frustrated as a disparity between vaccine production and vaccine distribution leading to calls for more doses to become available.

Angela Peterson/Milwaukee Scientific Journal

Tennessee Faces Problems with Rollout

Tennessee acts a strong contrast to Wisconsin with a different and seemingly less effective approach. While the state follows federal recommendations with its phased approach, it is an unusual move allowing each of its counties to forego their guidelines and distribute the vaccines as they see fit. Most of the counties find themselves in the 1-A-1 stage of the rollout. This has led to the large disparity in how different parts of the states have distributed the COVID vaccine. Generally, most counties treat the 70+ population as the highest priority, as well as first responders, hospital staff, and people over 18 who can’t live independently. The state’s three most populous counties have all created their own individual rollout plans. David, Hamilton, and Shelby county –home to Nashville, Chattanooga, and Memphis respectively- have all placed people over 70 as a lower priority, drawing criticism from other parts of the state. This prioritization is likely an attempt to return more young people into the workforce as active parts of the economy. Hamilton county has completely run out of vaccine supplies, while the states 94 other counties are already low on supplies.

New York’s Mitigation Strategy

Governor Cuomo has earned much praise and criticism for his strategies to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic in New York. Late in 2020, New York City became the world’s epicenter of the pandemic. In response to this, Cuomo led a state-focused approach which gave local municipalities very little leeway in how they chose to mitigate the virus’s spread. The state has also prioritized clusters to account for the wide variety of demographic situations found in different parts of the state. Furthermore, the state has made mask-wearing mandatory and put a moratorium on all eviction until May of 2021, allowing people more flexibility in avoiding dangerous work situations. Additionally, anyone who has been contacted traced to a positive test must be quarantined for 10 days, regardless of if they receive a negative test themselves. For this reason, the state has been experiencing a downward trend in new cases.

Florida – a different strategy

Florida is a state that’s Covid strategy could not be farther from that of New York. Of the United States’s 50 largest metropolitan areas, Miami-Dade County has the highest rate of positive covid tests. In spite of this, the state’s policies on mask-wearing, business capacity, and public gatherings are less restrictive than those of virus-free nations like Australia and New Zealand. Helena Baust, a student at The University of Tampa, stated that “in other states people have masks on, here we don't,” and that police around clubs “prioritize alcohol and underage drinking over mask-wearing." Governor DeSantis’s response has largely consisted of playing down the threat of the virus in the public eye while encouraging minimal restrictions, going as far as to threaten municipalities that tried to close schools or enforce mask-wearing. After reopening the state, the extent of their COVID response has been focused solely on waiting for a vaccine. Floridian counties’ health bureaus of health have been actively discouraged from discussing the virus by the state authority. Prior to reopening, the department of health mentioned the pandemic an average of 139 times per month via Twitter. Following the reopening, on the September 5, the pandemic has been scantly mentioned via Twitter excluding occasional vaccine updates.

Octavio Jones/Getty Images

The Emergence of New Strains

A complicating factor that has introduced new concerns is the discovery of new strains emerging across the world. Virologists consider the development of new strains to be unfortunate but not particularly surprising as viruses are incredibly prone to mutation. In Autumn, a new strain was identified in the UK which has already spawned multiple mutations. The UK variant is potentially more deadly and was identified in the US in December of last year. South Africa has also had a similar strain to the UK variant that has developed independently. Brazil has also been the home to a new strain that was detected among nationals heading to Japan. This new strain is theorized to be harder for antibodies to detect. Health experts are recommending, in response to the new strains, to avoid travel while continuing mask usage and social distancing.

While the emergence of new strains presents a complication, current developments can inspire optimism. At a rate of over 2 million vaccinations a day- a number that is increasing- the US could have administered the first dose to 70% of the population by September of this year. This is a number that many health officials believe could create levels of herd immunity quickly. Some states- most notably Texas- have used this as justification for a complete abandonment of all coronavirus restrictions. Other states, like Massachusetts, have begun a slower process of phased reopening. Hope also remains on the horizon for university students such as Northeastern University, which has announced plans to return to “regular university activities” in the fall. While there seems to be hope for a return to normality, a lack of agreement in COVID policies can pose a threat to the current trend of decreasing positivity rates.

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