Vaccines are our light at the end of this long, dark tunnel

“What if the other side collapses while we’re in here?” 

My newspaper colleague and I were walking through a partially blocked tunnel on Highway 101 near the central Oregon Coast town of Yachats, en route to interview and photograph public officials, when she posed the question. The tunnel was long and very, very dark. We’d parked on the northern end and were walking toward the southern tunnel opening, where a powerful winter storm had sent an entire hillside worth of mud, trees, rocks and debris onto the highway a week before, almost completely covering that side of the tunnel. 

I can still remember the bubble of panic growing inside of my chest after she asked that question. The two of us — both in our 20s and still eager enough to please our editors that we often took risks to get the story — looked at each other inside that dark tunnel and we screamed. Then we ran the entire way, toward that sliver of light on the other end. The relief was sweet … until I realized we would eventually have to brave that entire tunnel again to get back to our cars. 

I was thinking about that tunnel this weekend. I’d received my first dose of the BioNTech-Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine a few days prior, and had been feeling pretty optimistic for the first time in over a year. Then I started reading about the COVID variants that are rocking parts of the world, including our Canadian neighbors to the north, where a third wave of COVID-19 in British Columbia, fueled by more contagious (and possibly more lethal) variants is “killing faster and younger,” and that same feeling of panic swept through me. 

We’ve been in a dark place for more than a year now, but the vaccines have been a sliver of light at the end of that tunnel. Now, the variants — combined with COVID fatigue, vaccine refusers and scores of infuriating officials who refuse to let go of the deadly “reopen everything and let them all get it” Trump playbook — are causing some public health experts to ask that same question my colleague posited 20 years ago: What if the other side collapses while we’re in here? 

It’s getting pretty alarming here,” Dr. Kashif Pirzada, a Toronto emergency room doctor recently told CNN. “The people filling the ICU right now are all in their 30s, 40s, and 50s.”

Pirzada posted a thread on Twitter showing images of young COVID-19 patients’ lungs. One, described by Pirzada as “a 35-year-old teacher with no medical problems” developed severe complications after catching the UK variant of the virus from an ill student — the same variant that has been detected in Clark County and is known to be “significantly more deadly” and several times more contagious than the COVID-19 we’ve come to know over the past 13 months.  

The Twitter thread, Pirzada said, was meant to “get the point across that variant Covid is brutalizing young people.” 

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel recently gave a similar warning, saying the UK variant has “proven to be more dangerous in children and young people.” 

On Tuesday, April 6, CBC, a Canadian media outlet, reported that “more young people are landing in the ICU with COVID-19” and that the median age for variant infections is 35. 

In Clark County, we know COVID-19 rates are again ticking up, moving from 90 cases per 100,000 residents on March 22 to more than 110 cases per 100,000 this week. We also know that we have lost 243 of our neighbors to this virus over the past year: including 25 people in the prime of their parenting years (between the ages of 30 and 59). Nationally, COVID-19 has caused nearly 40,000 U.S. children under the age of 18 to lose at least one parent. 

The good news? The vaccines seem to be at least partially effective against the variants of concern, even the alarming UK variant and the P1 variant currently devastating Brazil

But we know — because public health experts have been warning us for months — that COVID-19 will continue to mutate as long as we continue to let it spread and fail to take mitigations known to control the spread of the airborne virus, such as mask-wearing, having proper ventilation indoors, distancing from others and avoiding crowds of people. That means the only chance we all have of reaching that sliver of light at the end of the tunnel is to reach a certain threshold of vaccinations, likely 70 percent or more, throughout the world. 

As a recent article at TheConversation put it: “No one is truly safe from COVID-19 until everyone is safe. We are in a race against time to get global transmission rates low enough to prevent the emergence and spread of new variants.”

New data shows that some people in our own country may make it difficult to achieve the level of inoculation we all need to keep ourselves, our families and our communities safe from COVID-19 variants: a recent NPR/PBS/Marist poll shows nearly half of Republican men in the U.S. say they do not plan to get a COVID-19 vaccine. Their hesitancy could be linked to new efforts on the far-right to promote anti-vaccine conspiracies. 

“Extremist organizations are now adopting a new agenda from the anti-vaccination campaign to try to undermine the government,” an article in the New York Times noted last week. “Apocalyptic warnings about the vaccine feed into the far-right narrative that the government cannot be trusted.”

There have certainly been some hiccups with the vaccines’ rollout — including a new recommendation that the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine not be given to people age 30 or younger, after the deaths of 19 women, three of them younger than 30, related to blood clots and possibly linked to the vaccine. The fact remains, however, that the risk of COVID-19, especially the risk from COVID variants, is far greater than the risk from the COVID-19 vaccines, which have now been given to more than 700 million people. Studies show the risk of dying from the vaccine is about one in a million, while the risk of dying from COVID-19 is around one in 10,000 for people in their 20s and climbs to one in 100 for those in their 60s and one in 10 for those age 80 and older. 

Medical professionals have been trying to dispel conspiracies surrounding the vaccine. For those who are hesitant, speaking to a family physician may help alleviate some of the concerns about the COVID-19 vaccines and mRNA technology, which has been studied for more than 30 years but is just now being used in vaccines — to fight COVID-19 as well as malaria, which kills more than 400,000 people every year — and touted for its far-reaching ability to possibly help fight advanced cancers, vaccinate against seasonal flu viruses, reverse multiple sclerosis and treat cystic fibrosis. 

We are well on our way toward finding that light at the end of the dark tunnel. And the sooner we get there, the sooner we can visit our grandparents, hug our friends, go to a concert, travel the world, attend live sporting events, and get back to the lives we lived before we ever heard the phrase “novel coronavirus.” 

Nearly 130,000 Clark County residents have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. On April 16, everyone in the state ages 16 and older will be eligible for their inoculation against this deadly virus. The vaccines are effective, safe, free and our best protection against another year of losing people we love or of fearing our loved ones’ health will be permanently impacted. To find a vaccination location in your area, visit VaccineLocator.doh.wa.gov