Denby Fawcett: When And How Does The Pandemic End? - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Most people wonder the same thing: when is this pandemic going to be over?

Because COVID-19 has never infected humans before, experts can only speculate about an endgame.

But there is agreement on one thing: COVID-19 is going to be upending our lives for at least another year, maybe longer.

This novel virus, based on the history of other coronaviruses, is likely to be here forever but over time diminish in its lethality; perhaps eventually morphing into a seasonal flu.

Health experts say people will need to continue wearing masks and avoiding large social gatherings because they are key weapons to reduce the virus’ rate of transmission while kinks in the upcoming new vaccines are worked out and epidemiologists learn more about how to slow down its spread.

COVID-19 will not disappear as soon as President Trump wants voters to believe.

Also, never mind what Trump says about everybody getting vaccinated soon, epidemiologists and virologists in his own administration agree that any vaccine or vaccines will not be available to the general public until next summer or later.

Department of Health building sign ‘No Mask no entry’ during Coronavirus pandemic. May 5, 2020
Health experts predict COVID-19 will be with us for at least a year. We’ll be wearing masks that long, too. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Dr. Tarquin Collis, infections disease chief at Kaiser Permanente Moanalua Medical Center, said in a Hawaii Department of Health newsletter Friday that he expects COVID-19 will continue to infect people “well after a vaccine is available.”

He sees the virus lasting “over the next year or two and it really will likely be that long.”

Health experts say that 60% to 70% or more of the world would have to either be vaccinated or have obtained natural immunity after recovering from the disease for the disease to be suppressed.

But what comprises a threshold level of immunity is still a topic of disagreement with some experts arguing fewer than 60% of people would have to be immune to subdue the virus.

I asked three doctors who have been treating dozens of COVID-19 patients in Hawaii since the beginning of the pandemic in March for their views on when the virus could be slowed down enough to become less deadly.

‘Educated Guesswork’

Dr. Tarquin Collis, Dr. Rick Bruno and Dr. Craig Thomas all spoke with the caveat that their estimates are based on analyzing previous pandemics and what Collis characterizes as “educated guesswork because there are many, many variables at play.”

Bruno sees the virus being active for up to two more years. He is an emergency medicine doctor as well as vice president of patient care at The Queen’s Health Systems and president of The Queen’s Medical Group.

Thomas believes COVID-19 will be a major factor in our lives for at least a year, maybe longer.

Dr. Craig Thomas is president of Hawaii Emergency Physicians Associated. Craig Thomas/2020

Thomas says rather than asking when it will end, a better question is what are the phases we will need to go through for COVID-19 to be tamed into something we can live with?

He says the phases will include lowering the rate of transmission of the infection with a combination of widespread vaccinations and natural immunity from people who have recovered from COVID-19, testing, tracing, isolation, continued mask wearing, physical distancing and some travel restrictions.

“Mask wearing would be the last to go,” he said. “If a year from now we are just down to wearing masks, I would call it a great success.”

“But we are inextricably bound to the rest of the world and that will depend on what the rest of the world is doing,” Thomas added.

Thomas is president of Hawaii Emergency Physicians Associated, Hawaii’s largest emergency physician group serving 10 rural and suburban hospitals.

Collis said via email that he and a lot of other infectious disease doctors and epidemiologists worldwide anticipate that “even a reasonably good vaccine will not put a quick end to the pandemic.”

He said that’s because it’s unknown if the vaccine will prevent COVID-19 infection and transmission completely or like other flu vaccines only keep a person who caught the coronavirus from getting severely ill or going to the hospital.

“That’s the distinction that we’re all watching for,” he said.

Will People Accept A Vaccine?

In addition, he says he expects the effectiveness of the vaccination campaign to be slowed by the difficulty of distributing millions of doses of the vaccine worldwide, especially if doses will have to be refrigerated.

And then there is the real problem of convincing enough people to accept injections when recent polls have shown only about half of the American people are willing to take it, and there is reluctance abroad as well.

In a Pew Research poll released Thursday, 49% of Americans said they definitely would not or probably would not agree to be vaccinated if COVID-19 vaccinations were available today.

Dr. Tarquin Collis is infections disease chief at Kaiser Permanente Moanalua Medical Center. Courtesy: Kaiser Permanente

The vaccine-wary expressed concern about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines that are being rushed out to meet deadlines in President Donald Trump’s “Operation Warp Speed” campaign, which has compressed the 73 months it usually takes to create a safe vaccine to only 14 months.

Also for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve any vaccine all the manufacturer has to show is that it is safe and will reduce the severity of the illness in only half of the people inoculated.

“That will still leave a lot of people vulnerable,” said Thomas.

“And of course we are talking about trying to vaccinate 7 to 8 billion people in a world that is deeply interconnected. It is not enough to focus on our own country and this pandemic has shown us that in spades,” said Collis.

He says another big unknown is if people who have recovered from COVID-19 can catch the virus again and transmit it to others “which will prolong the point at which we can call the pandemic over.”

A man in Hong Kong last month caught the virus a second time four months after he recovered from his first bout but he didn’t have any symptoms.

Collis wonders if reinfection from this virus is going to be the exception or the rule.

Nobody knows how long immunity from COVID-19 inoculations will last and if booster shots will be necessary.

Dr. Rick Bruno is president of The Queen’s Medical Group. Queen's Medical Group

Bruno says he sees COVID-19 as a challenge because humans, unless they’ve previously been infected, have no natural immunity to it and it easily and quickly spreads, sometimes by asymptomatic carriers.

“Until we have a high level of immunity it is going to continue to work its way through the community,” he said.

When it comes to a vaccine, he anticipates manufacturing and logistical challenges on a huge scale.

“We will have to make a lot and get it to a lot of people.”

He is also concerned about a possible second surge of COVID-19 in the winter, which many health experts are anticipating on the mainland as the cold weather sets in and people move indoors to rooms with closed windows, giving the virus easy targets to infect.

Still, Bruno sees hope: “We have forced this down (the numbers of infections) in Hawaii twice already and it can happen again.”

I think the Department of Health should be as frank as these three doctors about how long COVID-19 is expected to be with us. And make it clear that the vaccine so heavily touted by the president is no silver bullet and that herd immunity will only slow down the disease, not stop it.

With that information, residents might be more easily persuaded to treasure their masks and wear them often as well as find new, more distanced ways to socialize with their friends.

“In the end it is up to us,” says Thomas.

Read this next:

VIRUS TRACKER -- Sept. 22: 63 New COVID-19 Cases

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

Denby, if you communicate with med professionals, kindly ask them whether the signs already point to a seasonal virus aka overwhelmingly the elderly suffer worst and in contrast with prior pandemics this one appears to largely spare our children. That's the hallmark of seasonal.  And will be milder, not because the virus mutates to that, though that could happen, but instead eventually milder as more of us will have had a prior exposure (and/or have been vaccinated). 

BemusedAndBefuddled · 2 years ago

UPMC "scientists have isolated the smallest biological molecule to date that completely and specifically neutralizes the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which is the cause of COVID-19. This antibody component, which is 10 times smaller than a full-sized antibody, has been used to construct a drug—known as Ab8—for potential use as a therapeutic and prophylactic against SARS-CoV-2."Hopefully this, and other such endeavors, will lead to several effective treatments for covid-19, as there are for the various types of flu.

GamE · 2 years ago

COVID is an acronym for Certification Of Vaccination Identification (ID), of course they're going to push vaccines.  They want us all microchipped and tracked with our vaccine records and even make it our digital wallet and turn us into a cashless society and depopulate the world population by 10-15%.  If the government truly cared about our health, they would be removing toxic products and chemicals off the store shelves.  Promoting exercise, fresh air, vitamins from the sun, being out doors, being with loved ones, laughter.  Educating and promoting mental health, alkaline diets, fruits and veggies, getting rid of Monsanto, diverting from pharmaceutical drugs and promoting holistic healthcare.  Time to use your brains Hawaii and think outside of the box instead of believing everything the CDC, the WHO or any political leader or news media outlet tells you to believe. How can you trust what is in that needle?

livealoha · 2 years ago

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