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A vaccine doesn’t mean troubles are over. Take a look

The light at the tunnel is coming, but the tunnel might be a bit longer than everyone thinks

SHARE A vaccine doesn’t mean troubles are over. Take a look

A pedestrian wearing a mask walks past a sign advising that COVID-19 vaccines are not available yet at a Walgreen’s pharmacy store during the coronavirus outbreak in San Francisco, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020.

Jeff Chiu, Associated Press

The oil industry may be a bellwether for the emotions of average Americans in the coming months.

When at least two successful vaccines were announced in November, oil prices jumped. But then they quickly fell again as the everyday realities of the pandemic intruded on the optimism and brought investors back to earth.

Prepare for similar roller coasters ahead.

Writing in Foreign Affairs on Wednesday, two officials with the Kaiser Family Foundation outlined some of the pitfalls that await. These include deciding how to distribute vaccines; educating people to the fact that the vaccines set for approval require two doses, spread out over three or four weeks, to be effective; overcoming public skepticism about vaccines in general; and a global distribution system that is likely to favor wealthy nations over the poor.

“To eliminate the risk of future outbreaks, as much as 70% of the world’s population will need to be immune to the coronavirus — through vaccination or infection and recovery,” wrote Josh Michaud, Kaiser’s association director for global health policy, and Jen Kates, its senior vice president and director of global health & HIV policy. “Achieving this will take an astonishing feat of global cooperation, one that may prove more difficult and take much longer than most people realize.”

So far, only about 10% of the world’s population has had COVID-19, they write, adding that most of those infections have been focused in a few countries. This “leaves an extraordinarily high target for global vaccination efforts.”

None of this means you should feel bad about having experienced a surge of optimism in recent days as word came that Britain had approved Pfizer’s version of the vaccine for general use. The United States likely won’t be far behind, with the Food and Drug Administration set to meet Dec. 10 on the Pfizer vaccine and Dec. 17 on one by Moderna

This is indeed the light at the end of a long tunnel — the thing that allows us eventually to get back to life as it was before mid-March, and that finally lets us see how much of the new normal (working from home, shopping mostly online, etc.) is permanent, and how much was just a temporary adjustment.

It’s just that the tunnel might be a bit longer than everyone thinks.

How will people react when they realize they need two shots, instead of one? How will they react when they’re told to continue wearing a mask and socially distancing until they get that second shot four weeks later? Or maybe more importantly, will people get a shot at all? 

A Gallup poll taken last month found 58% of Americans saying they would take the vaccine, which was up from 50% in September, but down from 66% in July. Those who are 45 and older apparently are the least likely to get one.

Dr. Mallika Marshalla, a journalist and physician with a CBS television station in Boston said health care professionals are worried about keeping track of people who need a second shot. “Will doctor’s offices be able to track down those patients who still need to return?” she wrote. “What if someone goes to one pharmacy for the first shot but tries to go to another for the second? Or what if someone moves away between shots?”

Or what if people experience mild symptoms associated with the first shot — low-grade fever and discomfort — and decide not to come back?

“Once it becomes clear that a vaccine won’t mean immediate deliverance from the crisis, there is a risk that popular disillusionment could set it,” Michaud and Kates wrote for Foreign Affairs. This, they said, could deepen “the creeping skepticism of vaccines in parts of the world and (add) to the already formidable challenge of immunizing more than half the global population.”

This dismal view of the coming months doesn’t have to become a reality. But anyone who has seen how disinformation spreads on the internet knows some of these worries sound plausible.

This means political leaders, both in Washington and in states, need to wage clear and credible campaigns to educate people and keep them on track. It means they need to oversee distribution plans that are carefully planned, clear and precise, and equitable, making sure the homeless get just as easy access as the wealthiest people.

That could be a challenge at a time when many of these governments are transitioning between leaders, sometimes from different parties. But if we want this long ordeal to finally end — if we want oil investors and all sectors of the economy to begin rebounding with a lasting confidence — it has to happen.