BY MAKENNA MARKS
Dec. 2, 2020 — In a normal year, the holiday season is filled with joy, friends and family. But between a viral pandemic and a controversial presidential election, 2020 is certainly not a normal year.
COVID-19 is still alive and well, and folks are being asked to continue to wear masks and social distance. In Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee is advising people not to gather with others outside their household. But following Thanksgiving and with Christmas quickly approaching, the CDC predicts the United States will see an increase in COVID-19 cases over the next few weeks.
Aside from relying on the people around us to follow mask and social distancing mandates, who else should Americans rely on? President Trump’s plan to combat the virus includes reopening states based on multiple factors including number of cases, amount of reported symptoms and hospital care intensity.
In order for states to start reopening, Trump’s plan requires a downward trajectory of reported flu and COVID-19 symptoms, as well as documented COVID-19 cases all over a 14-day period. It also requires that hospitals treat all patients without “crisis care” and that a robust testing system be in place for hospital employees.
While there is legitimacy to reopening states based on Trump’s criteria, it’s important to emphasize that solely looking at the total number of cases does not give the full picture, said Dr. Steve Bennett, a health and human development professor at Western Washington University. Bennett’s professional expertise is in epidemiology and the ecology of infectious diseases.
“You need to look at your percent positive rate,” Bennett said. “That tells you if your total cases are going up because of increased testing, or if your total cases are going up because more people are getting [COVID-19] at a faster rate than they were before.” According to Johns Hopkins’ Coronavirus Resource Center, Washington state’s percent positive rate has increased over the last month.
Trump has also publicly participated in superspreader events like the Rose Garden event in August and has downplayed the severity of COVID-19 on Twitter. Last month, a superspreader wedding in Eastern Washington made national news when authorities traced and connected six COVID-19 related deaths back to the 300-person event.
Bennett said Trump’s messages to the public have been negatively affecting and undermining public health.
“The idea that masks have become a political idea and you have people calling each other sheeps … is frustrating as a public health professional,” Bennett said. “When you put your baby in a car seat no one says you’re living in fear and you’re a sheep to the government. We follow various guidelines to exist within society.”
President-elect Joe Biden will take office January 20 and plans to take a much different approach to combat COVID-19. According to his website, Biden plans to increase testing, enact paid leave for those affected by the virus, and heavily rely on science and healthcare professionals for direction.
Bennett said Biden’s plan looks good so far, but he is concerned about how all 50 states will react.
“What we’ve seen in most countries that have done really well in responding to COVID-19 is that there’s a unified federal response,” Bennett said. “One of the challenges that we have in the United States is that we tend to be very state-focused. We’re essentially 50 small countries trying to independently respond to the coronavirus.”
Rudy Alamillo, a political science professor at Western, also much prefers Biden’s plan to Trump. But like Bennett, Alamillo has his fair share of concerns.
“I think that [Biden’s] plan is certainly an improvement over Trump’s, but I just wonder how much of it he’s actually going to be able to implement given the reality of the Senate that he’s going to be dealing with next year,” Alamillo said.
Alamillo said that with a Republican majority Senate, Biden’s plan to provide paid leave to those affected by COVID-19 is unlikely to become a reality.
“We’re most likely stuck waiting on our hands until we have the vaccine,” Alamillo said.
A University of Washington PhD student, Unmesha Roy Paladhi, understands the frustration people are feeling as we wait for a sliver of good news. Paladhi’s field of study is epidemiology.
“People are seeing public health research and response unfold before their eyes in real-time which can be frustrating, even to those of us in the field,” Paladhi said in a written statement. “What we have been experiencing as a nation has been heartbreaking and difficult, but recent news from multiple COVID-19 vaccine trials seem promising.”
Following the United Kingdom, Canada is the latest country to approve Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine. The vaccine is a two-dose series and is 95% effective.
“While we wait for vaccines to pass FDA milestones and be distributed widely to the general population in the next months, it is important for leaders to use evidence-based approaches to develop public health policies to protect the public,” Paladhi said.
But until the vaccine is approved by the United States, it’s best to stay home and stay safe this holiday season.