Emerging COVID-19 data suggests new treatments and increased knowledge from physicians are shortening hospital stays and reducing the virus’s mortality rates. Reports like these may seem like a relief amid the rising tide of COVID-19 cases in the United States. Still, lower mortality rates are only possible if the hospital system remains intact. As COVID-19 patients flood into hospitals, this promising data can quickly take a turn for the worst.
In November 2020, the number of daily national new COVID-19 cases shattered records from earlier in the pandemic, often repeatedly breaking records in consecutive days. Unlike the New York epicenter in the spring of 2020, outbreaks are occurring nationwide. This includes rural areas virtually untouched by the pandemic’s first wave. In some rural areas, hospital capacity is so low that even a small outbreak threatens to overwhelm the hospital system.
Hospital capacity is the number one concern for many state and local leaders who know that a percentage of the rapidly rising cases will require hospital care. Even if hospital stays are shorter and treatments are more effective, an influx of patients could quickly overwhelm both the physical number of hospital beds and the available medical providers like doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists.
If too many people seek hospital care simultaneously, shorter stays will not be enough to avoid overwhelming hospital systems. If hospitals are at capacity and can no longer provide measured care to patients, mortality rates may reach unprecedented levels. Large outbreaks may force regions to open field hospitals to treat COVID-19 patients or even turn patients away in the grimmest of situations. The result could be a public health crisis that outpaces the worst of the New York outbreak in March and April of 2020.
Until vaccines are available to large portions of the American public, social distancing, mask wearing, testing and contact tracing will be essential to prevent a public health catastrophe in the United States.
Sources: WSJ, NY Times
As of early December 2020, two breakthrough mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, the Moderna vaccine and BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine, were officially submitted for FDA approval. With promising study results, including 95% efficacy for both and no major safety concerns, these vaccines should be a stepping stone to slowing and eventually stopping the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, public-health authorities face two major challenges: distribution and public trust. Of these, establishing trust in a vaccine may pose the greatest threat to a swift halting of the pandemic. In fact, a November 2020 poll by Gallup found that only 58% of American adults were likely or very likely to get vaccinated when it becomes available. Even with a highly effective vaccine, over three quarters of Americans will need to be vaccinated to truly stop the current public-health crisis in the U.S.. With 42% of American adults still resistant to vaccination, challenges remain for public health officials who seek mass public compliance.
According to the same poll by Gallup, most respondents who are hesitant to vaccination note the speed of vaccine creation and safety of the vaccine as primary concerns. In fact, over 60% of Americans who do not want to receive the vaccine cite the accelerated development timeline or undocumented safety fears as their main concern.
Fortunately, these attitudes are changeable by increasing public health information and transparency around clinical study results. While Gallup’s data shows a slim majority of Americans are confident in the vaccine, the poll also demonstrates an increase in vaccine confidence from 50% to 58% between September and November. This indicates that clinical results and consistent science-based informational campaigns can shift attitudes in favor of vaccination. As the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines increases, so should campaigns for widespread confidence in vaccine safety and efficacy, which could ultimately enable a return to normal social activities in the near future.
Source: Gallup, STAT News