WHO GETS WHAT WHEN: Naturally, I should have been elated. I’d just turned 65 when Governor Gavin Newsom gave the orders that people my age could now get vaccinated. I’d won the lottery. Maybe the vaccine isn’t a bulletproof vest, but it’s at least a heavy raincoat. With all the infected sputum spray out there, maybe a raincoat is just what I need.
Then, as I contemplated my good fortune, it dawned on me that I had just been bumped ahead of my son, who works at Trader Joe’s where he and his colleagues had been standing in the essential workers’ batter’s box waiting to get vaccinated. That suddenly makes the public health math both tricky and uncomfortable.
Being an older white male and undeniably tougher than dirt, I am less likely to get infected than my otherwise invulnerable son, though I’m more likely to get seriously sick if I do. But he is much more likely to come into contact with infected people. Grocery stores remain one of the few spots where people absolutely must gather. No matter how conscientiously customers are required to follow safety procedures, such places are vectors. And since my son lives at home, that matters to the whole family. What happens at Trader Joe’s — or any other essential food outlet — does not necessarily stay at Trader Joe’s.
The actual — as opposed to theoretical — reality is that I will experience the worst of both possible worlds: no vaccine for me and none for my son.
News flash! There aren’t enough vaccines. Santa Barbara County has been allotted 44,085 shots so far. The county’s population is 10 times that.
The soonest I can dream of getting vaccinated is sometime very late this spring. Probably this summer. I say this because we just heard from a 75-year-old man who said he just got scheduled by Sansum to get his shot in the fourth week of May. And my son was put in a much longer, slower line. If the Governor adds 50-year-olds to the ever-evolving line — as has been suggested — my son and all his necessary grocery co-workers — not to mention teachers and a whole lot of other workers at risk of infection — will get bumped again.
This week, of course, Governor Newsom notified us that the holiday surge has now abated sufficiently to allow outdoor dining again. Barbershops and hair salons were given a new lease on life. Naturally, I suspected the worst.
Newsom is now facing a mounting recall effort that never would have gained traction had he not been caught eating a $450 dinner at a fancy restaurant at a birthday bash for his good buddy the chief lobbyist for the cannabis industry along with his other good buddies, lobbyists for the medical industry. None, naturally, were wearing masks.
Would the governor have lifted the stay-at-home order if he weren’t in political hot water?
To assuage such concerns, I was lucky enough to talk with Dr. Lynn Fitzgibbons of Cottage Hospital, who pound for pound knows more about COVID than anyone should have to; plus, she knows how to translate it into plain English. While cautiously optimistic, I sensed in her a struggle between her caution and her optimism.
“I am ultimately, perhaps, reassured,” she, perhaps, reassured me. The governor’s health advisors were clearly looking at long-term projections, not the scary-high number of deaths and hospital beds occupied by COVID patients. Those numbers are still high — both statewide and in Santa Barbara — but they are not accelerating as fast.
If that’s not the same as “flattening the curve,” it will have to do until the real thing comes along.
Two weeks ago, Fitzgibbons noted, Santa Barbara was reporting 500 to 700 new cases a day. Now, we’re averaging closer to 250. We still have about 200 COVID patients hospitalized — far more than we ever had during the summer surge — but the rate of new hospitalizations is decreasing. Something is getting better. But perhaps that’s because it’s winter, a time when more people typically need to be hospitalized for any number of things. That makes the competition for bed spaces more intense should our current deceleration not continue.
To be fair, there is any number of reasons Fitzgibbons could have said “perhaps.” Being a precise person by nature and training, she probably said that to indicate the free-floating uncertainty that attends any assertion.
One dawning source of such uncertainty, clearly, is the emergence of the many mutant “variants” popping up. What we don’t know about these is a lot, but there’s some evidence to indicate the variant from the U.K. is 50 percent more infectious than the virus we’re used to fighting. And the Brazilian variant might be susceptible to reinfection. And the current vaccines might be less effective against the South African variant. Then, of course, we have California’s home-grown variants to bedevil us.
Lest we panic unduly, Fitzgibbons noted, it’s likely these variants have been part of our picture all along; we just weren’t aware. She is part of a new project — along with Public Health Officer Dr. Henning Ansorg, Dr. David Fisk of Cottage, and Dr. Stewart Comer to start testing and tracking the local population for these variants. If anyone can make headway, this Dream Team can.
In the meantime, if Dr. Fitzgibbons says she’s optimistic and reassured, then I am too.
I just don’t want my son to get infected.
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