The pandemic divide

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One year ago, with the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines, Rochester Beacon readers who responded to a survey were upbeat on the prospects for an end to the global pandemic that struck here in March 2020. Three-quarters were optimistic that in six months the coronavirus would no longer be a major public health threat locally.

Today, views have darkened. In a new Rochester Beacon survey, more than two-thirds of participants expressed pessimism when asked the same question. Forty-seven percent said they were “not very optimistic” and 21 percent replied “not at all optimistic.” Only 3 percent were “very optimistic,” down from 19 percent in late December 2020.

“I think that the virus will continue to be a major health problem as long as there is a significant number of susceptible potential hosts for it,” says Shiva Nataraja. “This will allow it to continue to spread and potentially mutate. This could lead to more virulent strains that may also evade current vaccines and naturally acquired immunity.”

The new survey was conducted as the seven-day average of new U.S. COVID cases hit a new high, topping the previous mark set in mid-January. The Delta and emergent Omicron variants are driving the current surge.

Twelve months ago, the number of confirmed cases had reached 24,000 in Monroe County and nearly 16.7 million nationwide. At the start of this week, total cases were 109,309 in Monroe County and nearly 53 million in the U.S. as a whole. Globally, the coronavirus has infected 281 million people and has killed more than 5.4 million, including more than 820,000 nationwide and 1,568 in Monroe County—up from 303,000 and 390, respectively, a year ago.

In the final week of December 2020, only 338 of the 1.14 million people five years or older in the Rochester region had received a full vaccine series, data from the Finger Lakes COVID-19 Vaccine Hub show. Twelve months later, 751,671 have received a full vaccine series and 299,422 have had a booster shot. 

That still leaves more than 386,000 people—or one-third—who are not fully vaccinated. And nearly three-quarters of the 5+ population in the nine-county Finger Lakes region have not received the booster shot that provides additional protection against the Omicron variant.

Among the Beacon survey participants, the vast majority—92 percent—say they have received a complete series and a booster shot. The handful who are unvaccinated cited various reasons for their decision: concern about possible side effects, natural immunity, and avoidance of medicine generally. “I will decide which substances will be put in my body,” says one respondent. “Not government, drug companies or other self-interested entities.”

Ninety-one percent of those taking part in the survey say they support New York’s mandate for masks to be worn in all indoor public places unless businesses or venues implement a vaccine requirement.

Many of these respondents voice frustration and even anger at those on the other side of the pandemic divide—the unvaccinated and those who refuse to comply with the mask mandate.

“I’m not very optimistic because we have too many individuals and businesses refusing to take protective measures—too many unvaccinated/unboosted people, too many people refusing to mask, and too many businesses refusing to comply even with the masking mandate, much less to require proof of vaccination for entry,” says Martin Nott.

Miriam Rudnick also is not optimistic that COVID can be brought under control by mid-2022, “because too many people are ignorant and selfish, and therefore dangerous.”

Says Max Lazary: “The combination of not enough people getting vaccinated to reach herd immunity along with general COVID fatigue leaves me with very little optimism.”

Some respondents see reason to be hopeful, though. 

“I’m optimistic,” says Linda Saalman, “because I have hopes that Omicron will be the breakthrough solution—a (relatively) benign form of the disease that is highly contagious, and that will turn CV-19 into a tolerable chronic disease by crowding out more deadly forms.”

“I know we keep saying if we can get through the winter … “but if we can get through the winter, I think being outside and opening windows will be a huge help,” says Kate Fall. “We are vaccinating more people every day. We are developing more effective vaccines and treatments. We can do this! One more winter!”

Overall, respondents rated the community and its health care system positively in terms of the response to the pandemic—though the results were more mixed than a year ago, when the same questions were posed.

More than one-third (34 percent) graded the health care system as “excellent,” down from 54 percent in December 2020; 54 percent rated it “good,” versus 41 percent a year ago. 

Grading the Rochester community, 5 percent chose “excellent,” compared with 13 percent last December; 46 percent rated it as “good” (versus 52 percent before). Forty-eight percent thought the response to the pandemic was fair or poor (compared with 35 percent a year ago).

The 109,309 confirmed COVID cases in Monroe County since March 2020 translates to 14.7 percent of the population, though it’s not possible to know from the publicly available data how many people have tested positive more than once. Even so, the Beacon survey participants appear to be fairly representative of the population in terms of infections. One question asked: “At any time since the pandemic began, have you or another person in your household tested positive for COVID-19?” Fifteen percent responded yes.

Looking ahead, Doug Cullum expressed a view that might be shared by many of his fellow survey respondents: “I teeter between somewhat optimistic and not very optimistic. I’m heartened by the decreased severity of Omicron infections, but concerned about the potential of future variants. I’m encouraged by the possibility of moving closer to herd immunity, but distressed by the antivaccine ideology that seems impenetrable to reasoned argument.”

Jaime Saunders, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Rochester and the Finger Lakes, says “there is no question we are collectively exhausted by this pandemic which will have long-lasting ramifications on our society.” Yet she also believes our collective response to COVID has been “astounding and taught us that we can achieve great things when we work together on a unified goal. … We have also witnessed how connected we are to one another and how we have the ability to reduce the severe impacts and build a new way forward together.”

More than 200 readers took part in the Beacon survey, conducted Dec. 28-29, The following are the complete signed written responses of participants in the survey. Many additional unsigned responses were submitted. As a matter of policy, the Beacon does not post unsigned comments.

Why are you optimistic or not optimistic that in six months COVID-19 will no longer be a major public health threat locally?

Our lack of a cohesive and rational approach as a community will continue to hamper efforts to return to normalcy.

—David Powe 

As long as people refuse to vaccinate we will not get herd immunity and the viruses continue to mutate.

—Debra Martin 

There are too many people either unvaccinated and/or not following safe practices to rid us of the virus.

—Yvonne Hylton 

I think that the virus will continue to be a major health problem as long as there is a significant number of susceptible potential hosts for it. This will allow it to continue to spread and potentially mutate. This could lead to more virulent strains that may also evade current vaccines and naturally acquired immunity. At best, it will remain circulating in the human population for the foreseeable future.

—Shiva Nataraja 

Your inclusion of the word “locally” in the question gives me pause. Locally, I’m somewhat optimistic because by June the highly transmissible and dominant omicron variant will have long since infected most of its available targets with mild disease. That, combined with continued masking and rapid testing, could reduce COVID-19 to a minor public health threat locally. However, as we’ve seen, viruses do not remain local for long. A better case scenario is that the less dangerous and more transmissible virus reduces the probability of more dangerous variants arising anywhere in the world. Beyond six months, many of us will continue to wear masks in crowded indoor spaces especially during the annual cold and flu season. We may also need annual COVID shots along with our flu vaccines. That is my vision of an optimistic outcome. We will be forever grateful to the scientists and public health leaders who helped the world confront the COVID-19 pandemic.

—Tom Cummings 

I am hoping that Omicron will ebb in a few months and no other extreme variants arise and that vaccines and available medications will protect us. I hope that this will become another manageable virus for the general population, like the flu. I am not so hopeful for the rest of the developing nations.

—Anne Quinn 

In many ways we have learned to live with it, to modify our actions to protect others, and as the science continues to evolve, we know more of how to mitigate its harmful effects. Our collective response to COVID was astounding and taught us that we can achieve great things when we work together on a unified goal. There is no question we are collectively exhausted by this pandemic which will have long-lasting ramifications on our society. We have also witnessed how connected we are to one another and how we have the ability to reduce the severe impacts and build a new way forward together.

—Jaime Saunders, United Way of Greater Rochester and the Finger Lakes 

The low rate of vaccination will result in ongoing infections, and possibly new variants that will require reformulation of vaccines, much like the annual flu shot.

—Jim Davis 

Not at all optimistic: 1. Too many are unwilling to get vaccinated. Too many are unwilling to wear masks and maintain social distance. 2. The virus continues to surprise us by evolving to more contagious variants with increasing resistance to existing vaccines. COVID-19 will be a part of our lives for many years to come, like the seasonal flu that comes around every year. The CDC estimates that flu has resulted in 9 million – 41 million illnesses, 140,000 – 710,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 – 52,000 deaths annually between 2010 and 2020. COVID will probably have a much greater impact over this decade.

—Tom Perry 

There are too many people, including their children, who remain unvaccinated AND, vaccinated people are still contracting the virus and spreading it.

—Diane Watkins 

There will be another variant by then and misinformation will continue such that many still will not have been vaccinated. There is no end in sight, only illness, death, hardship and business failures. The costs associated with the pandemic will continue to mount exponentially.

—David Terp 

I’m optimistic because I have hopes that Omicron will be the breakthrough solution—a (relatively) benign form of the disease that is highly contagious, and that will turn CV-19 into a tolerable chronic disease by crowding out more deadly forms. I also have hopes that this winter will help cement remote work as a cultural norm for those who want or need it, that masks will become normalized behavior for other respiratory illnesses so CV-19 protection doesn’t stand out, that indoor facilities will be better ventilated as a norm and by regulation, and that by next summer, outdoor eating and sidewalk shopping will also be normalized. We may finally settle on ways to protect the most vulnerable while minimizing the damage of social isolation. It’s even possible that a more generic antiviral vaccine that targets more than just CV-19 will make inroads into the anti-vax community. In other words, the risks may be lower and protection greater for respiratory viruses generally, not just CV-19. Note that I’m not that optimistic for the international community.

—Linda Saalman 

Although we have great scientists, doctors and tools to investigate the microbiology of the Covid-19 virus, we have not shown adequate understanding of its epidemiology to control its spread. Our national health organizations have not shown responsive leadership in the logistics and organization to guide us locally in managing the outbreak. Although there is hope on the horizon for better prevention and treatment, we are still hoping it will go away but don’t know how to make that happen with certainty.

—Robert Lerner 

There will still be too many people who think they’re smarter than the system and will still be unvaccinated 6 months from now.

—Michael Anderson Stone 

I’m not very optimistic because we have too many individuals and businesses refusing to take protective measures—too many unvaccinated/unboosted people, too many people refusing to mask, and too many businesses refusing to comply even with the masking mandate, much less to require proof of vaccination for entry. This is why we can’t have nice things.

—Martin Nott 

I am not optimistic because of continued opposition to masking and vaccination by the uneducated, selfish, and stubborn.

—Karen Beadling 

The combination of not enough people getting vaccinated to reach herd immunity along with general COVID fatigue leaves me with very little optimism.

—Max Lazary 

I know we keep saying if we can get through the winter … but if we can get through the winter, I think being outside and opening windows will be a huge help. We are vaccinating more people every day. We are developing more effective vaccines and treatments. We can do this! One more winter!

—Kate Fall 

Covid was first identified in the mid-1900’s. With the advent of new technology we were able to characterize the virus. Previously infective in other animal species it now is infective to humans. It will ALWAYS be with us, people always will be hospitalized (just like flu), there will always be outpatient sickness. As we develop immunity, either via vaccine or herd, it will no longer be as lethal. Our fears are making it the current major public health issue that it is. Time to open the skies to travel again, let’s step up and allow businesses to prevent entry to the unvaccinated or, better yet, initiate mass testing for antibodies and let that be the determining factor—just as it is in college for measles, mumps and rubella.

—Neil R. Scheier, M.D. 

So many people are not willing to do their part in coming to grips with Covid, out of fear, misinformation, hard access to resources needed, political influences, ignorance, past negative experiences, etc. I think it is too late to really put Covid to bed. What we can do to limit its impact would be making everything needed to stem it—tests, shots, health care and transportation to these—free and readily accessible to all. Plus, maximize the public educational messages from good role models, minimize those from poor role models. Finally, use any of the other methods already used—lotteries, mandates, etc. —that may have been shown to have a positive impact.

—Jane Bleeg 

Vaccines not as effective against Omicron. Indifference to masking & social distancing. Continued large gatherings.

—George VanArsdale 

I am not particularly optimistic that COVID-19 will no longer be a major public health threat locally because too many people are not taking the infection seriously and not getting vaccinated, nor taking the proper precautions when out and about. That means that the virus has many hosts it will still infect (including some who are fully vaccinated) and provide opportunities for additional variants to emerge with uncertain consequences for the whole population, along with our health care systems. 

—Stephen L. Gaudioso 

I am not optimistic since so many in our community and region are not vaccinated, not getting booster and not using masks as required/respectful of others.

—Howie Jacobson 

I believe additional variants will develop for many years. Over time COVID will no longer be a pandemic, but will end up as endemic.

—Kathleen Jensen 

Given the apparently seasonal nature of Covid, I expect that our summers will be comparatively calm. But come fall again, all bets are off.

—Rose Ericson 

The self-sacrifice and slight risk that we all should take—masking and being vaccinated—have become an essential part of many peoples’ political identity. What is political is personal. Hopefully, the virus will simply become less deadly.

—Michael Kelly, Rochester

As long as a significant fraction of the US and world population remains unvaccinated, the virus will have the time to mutate and return to re-infect even previously vaccinated individuals. The greed of Big Pharma in getting the vaccine privatized for their benefit and ensuring a scarcity has locked us into this situation.

—Kenneth J. Reed PhD 

Too many still unvaccinated. Too many people still willing to gather in large groups, regardless of continuing surges.

—Jim Greco 

Because too many people are ignorant and selfish, and therefore dangerous.

—Miriam Rudnick 

COVID is the type of disease that has shown its ability to mutate and I expect that it will be omnipresent and disrupt life in the world, including Rochester, for a very long time.

—Bob Volpe 

I teeter between somewhat optimistic and not very optimistic. I’m heartened by the decreased severity of omicron infections, but concerned about the potential of future variants. I’m encouraged by the possibility of moving closer to herd immunity, but distressed by the antivaccine ideology that seems impenetrable to reasoned argument.

—Doug Cullum 

You can’t fix stupid. I am not optimistic that this global health threat will be resolved because some people are still not doing the right things to get this under control.

—Jim Gaden 

Paul Ericson is Rochester Beacon executive editor.

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