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End of COVID-19 pandemic in sight, but vigilance still required

Health and Benefits|Wellbeing
COVID 19 Coronavirus

By Jeff Levin-Scherz, MD | March 10, 2021

Despite more good news on vaccinations, it’s important to keep in mind that halting COVID-19 requires continued adherence to public health measures and more vaccination.

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About our “The COVID-19 Crisis” series

"The COVID-19 Crisis” series is a weekly update from Dr. Jeff Levin-Scherz, Population Health Leader and Health Management Practice Co-Leader, Health and Benefits, North America.

The snow is melting in my backyard, daylight savings time will be here this weekend, and the information on vaccines continues to be very positive.

About 60 million Americans have gotten at least one vaccine, and over 32 million have gotten both doses. Four million of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine have already been shipped, dramatically simplifying vaccination efforts. The Biden Administration has announced that it will have shipped enough vaccine to fully vaccinate all adults in the U.S. by the end of May; this makes it more likely that we’ll see a return to more normality this summer.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced new rules for those who are fully vaccinated. These guidelines say that small indoor gatherings without masks are acceptable for those who are fully vaccinated, and can include low risk household members, including children even if they are unvaccinated. This reflects our increasing confidence that those who are vaccinated are far less likely to spread the coronavirus. I’m confident that realistic changes in guidance like this will help accelerate interest in vaccines, which will continue to prevent illness and death.

We can only halt the medical and the economic devastation with continued adherence to public health measures and more vaccination. Being sure that public health recommendations are not overbearing helps increase public confidence.

We should recognize, though, that we are not entirely through with this pandemic.

We continue to have dramatic racial and ethnic disparities in COVID-19 vaccination rates — and getting high vaccination rates in every community helps to protect us all. Chicago has shown us that we can overcome these disparities. This (majority minority) city went from 18% of its vaccines going to Black and Hispanic people to 51% going to Black and Hispanic people over just a few weeks — but it took leadership, tough decisions and perseverance. Improvements require community partnerships, outreach and making vaccines easily available in familiar locations during non-business hours.

We also have not seen a drop in the rate of new infections in the U.S. in the last month. We’ve been at a bit over 60,000 new cases a day for four weeks. This could be due to increasing prevalence of variants (the B.1.1.117 variant represents about a quarter of infections in the U.S. now), or it could be due to decreased attention to distancing and mask wearing by people who mistakenly believe that the risk is lower than it really is. The end of the pandemic is in sight — but we’ll get there soonest by maintaining our vigilance. The vaccines will save the most lives if there is the lowest level of community spread.

Daily reported numbers to the CDC peaked at 314,172 cases on January 8, 2021. As of March 4, 2021, cases were at 57,586.
Daily trends in number of COVID-19 cases in U.S. reported to the CDC

Daily reported numbers peaked at 314,172 on January 8, 2021. As of March 4, 2021, they were at 57,586.

Source: CDC

I’ve been using graphics from the COVID-19 Tracking Project since the spring. This amazing volunteer effort to collect vast quantities of data across 50 states is winding down. The good news is that the CDC has ramped up its public reporting — so we’ll continue to have good information going forward, though the graphics will change. This last graphic from COVID-19 Tracking Project also shows dramatic improvement since January and demonstrates that the decline in new cases stalled through February.

On the COVID-19 Tracking Project’s final day of data collections: states reported 1.2 million tests, 41k cases, 40,212 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, and 839 deaths.
Nationwide COVID-19 metrics since April 1, 2020

Metrics reflect the COVID-19 Tracking Project’s final data collections.

Source: COVID-19 Tracking Project


How to reduce vaccine hesitancy

Jessica Jones (H&B), Julie Noblick(C&CM) and I had an article published by Harvard Business Review last week on using behavioral economics to nudge employees to get vaccinated. In the article we cover 12 strategies organizations can use to get more people vaccinated, including:

  • Emphasizing stories over statistics
  • Focusing on immediate, rather than long-term benefits
  • Stressing the necessity of vaccination for nonwork activities
  • Protecting employees from loss associated with vaccination

For all 12 strategies, read How Employers Can Reduce Vaccine Hesitancy in its entirety.

Author

Population Health Leader, Health and Benefits, North America

Jeff is a practicing physician and has led Willis Towers Watson’s clinical response to COVID-19. He has served in leadership roles in provider organizations and a health plan, and is an Assistant Professor at Harvard Chan School of Public Health.


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