Shots are going in arms, face masks are coming off, and many people are celebrating the end of their personal pandemics.
The past 14 months have been a challenge for most of us, filled with anxiety and isolation. Millions lost their jobs, and many others are grieving for the more than 3 million people worldwide who lost their lives to COVID-19.
We want to leave the pandemic behind and get back to seeing our family and friends. Inside. Without masks. The way it used to be.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) caught the country by surprise last week when its leaders said vaccinated people could do just that — gather in groups inside without masks. Unvaccinated people are still at risk and should still wear masks. The science is clear that vaccinations greatly reduce the risk of catching COVID-19 and the severity of the disease if a vaccinated person does get infected.
But it’s just as clear that this pandemic is far from over.
State and local leaders, including those in Colorado, quickly dropped mask mandates. Masks, unfortunately, became the most visible symbol of the pandemic. The coronavirus itself is far too small to see. And people who were infected suffered — and many died — alone in their homes or in a hospital, outside of public view. Masks, though, are right there on everyone’s face for all to see.
That’s why ditching masks is a risk. CDC scientists say it’s safe for vaccinated people to remove their masks. But there’s no way to tell who is vaccinated and who isn’t, and it’s likely that many unvaccinated people are removing their masks.
A further risk is that we delude ourselves into thinking that if the pandemic’s most visible symbol is gone, the virus must be gone, too. Here are four statistics that show why COVID-19 is not finished with us yet:
19 new cases per 100,000 people
Colorado’s seven-day rolling average of new daily COVID-19 infections as of May 18.
It’s the highest number in the United States, according to data compiled by The Washington Post and The New York Times. Yes, Colorado’s infection rate is dropping, just like in almost every state. But almost twice as many Coloradans are getting COVID-19 every day compared to the second wave in July 2020. An estimated one out of every 81 people in the state is currently contagious with the virus.
The prevalence of the B.1.1.7 variant, which was first identified in the United Kingdom.
Fortunately, vaccines are still highly effective against this variant. But B.1.1.7 was hardly detectable in Colorado at the beginning of the year, and its mutation has allowed it to spread quickly. This serves as a reminder that the coronavirus is constantly mutating, and the more people it infects, the greater the chance that one of those mutations will be more infectious or virulent or even vaccine-resistant. That’s why it’s imperative that the vaccination campaign accelerates here in Colorado, across the country, and, especially, around the world.
9% and 22%
The percentage of vaccines that have gone to Hispanic Coloradans, and the percentage of Colorado’s population that identifies as Hispanic, respectively.
And only 2.7% of vaccines have gone to Black or African American Coloradans, who make up 3.9% of Colorado’s population. It’s another stark reminder of the inequities and injustices that existed before the pandemic and have gotten worse over the past year. By the numbers, there are plenty of vaccines available. But not everyone has had a fair chance to get their dose. Racial and ethnic inequities persist. Some people can’t leave their homes. Some people have not received the information they need to make an informed decision whether, where, and how to get a shot. Some people do not trust a medical system that has neglected or even harmed their communities over the years. And some just haven’t been eligible for a shot until recently.
The number of people eligible for vaccines in Phase 2 who were fully vaccinated when the CDC issued its new guidance about masks.
A person who was not eligible for early vaccination and who got a Moderna shot on the first day that the general public was eligible, April 2, would not have been considered fully vaccinated until May 14, the day after the CDC issued its new guidance about masks. Meanwhile, 12- to 15-year-olds became eligible just last week.
We’re not arguing for vaccinated Coloradans to put their masks back on. Instead, now is a time for public health workers and political leaders to redouble efforts to vaccinate as many people as possible as soon as possible. High infection rates, a mutating virus, the continuing plague of structural inequity, and a significant number of still-unvaccinated Coloradans make this virus a continuing danger for all of us — even as some of us celebrate our new unmasked lives.
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