As the U.S. deals with Covid-19 vaccine mandates and the authorization and distribution of vaccines for children under 12, public health and safety officials are most concerned this winter season about the potential effects on the nation of any new Covid variant and the dangers of loosening safety measures and restrictions too soon over the holidays, all as the nation deals with the challenges of an inadequate labor force, supply chain problems, and the looming threat of a large cybersecurity event.
Meanwhile, over the longer-term, the U.S. should be prepared for Covid-19 to transition from a pandemic to an endemic that will never completely disappear and will require ongoing vigilance including the potential for seasonal safety measures under a “new normal.”
Those were some of the top takeaways from the Center for Homeland Defense and Security Executive Education Program Lecture and Webinar Series event entitled, “The Next Season of Pandemic Response: What Leaders Need to Know this Fall and Winter” held online on Oct. 27.
Led by moderator James Blumenstock, Senior Vice President of Pandemic Response and Recovery for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, the event featured a four-person panel discussing the current Covid-19 pandemic and issues heading into the winter season, including a recent U.S. Food and Drug Administration committee’s vote to recommend the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children aged 5-11 years. It also discussed what local and state leaders can expect next in the national response to the pandemic, and the latest developments in vaccine expansion, challenges in maintaining a resilient healthcare workforce, and endgame strategies for the pandemic.
The panel included: AJ Gary, Director, Division of Emergency Management, State of Arkansas; Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt, Director, Department of Health, Washington D.C.; Dr. Lee Norman, Secretary, Department of Health and Environment, State of Kansas; and, Chris Reykdal, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
A recorded version of the session is available on the CHDS website.
Asked how critical the FDA’s pediatric vaccine approval was for the fight against Covid-19, Nesbitt said vaccinations should result in fewer “missed educational opportunities” for children, noting concerns about the impact of the pandemic on social-emotional learning and learning loss. She also acknowledged that parents still have questions about the pediatric vaccine and noted plans for implementing an informational “ground game” across the country to answer those questions in preparation for vaccinating children. She added that this represents an “exciting opportunity” to vaccinate a larger percentage of the population.
Reydal noted that families typically prefer their family physicians to administer the vaccines so that will represent a different approach than the mass vaccination sites employed for adults.
At the same time, Reydal cautioned against assuming it will be okay to dispense with safety measures such as mask-wearing after children are vaccinated, arguing that it would be “terrible” to do so too soon and risk triggering further outbreaks as he suggested had already occurred.
The panel also discussed the impact of vaccine mandates, which Nesbitt called an “extremely effective tool,” and resistance to those mandates, which the panelists said they had not yet seen in their jurisdictions, as well as efforts to battle mis- and dis-information on social media, including through the use of coordinated messaging and trusted community messengers.
Norman said there is an effort underway to “change the narrative” around “freedom” to resist pandemic safety efforts, including vaccination, masks, and social distancing, to the “balance between freedom and safety.”
“The vaccine leads to freedom,” he said. “Victory is when someone agrees to get vaccinated to get more freedom.”
The panelists touched on the need to protect health care workers and deal with burnout as a result of the arduous demands of the pandemic and what Nesbitt called an “increasing lack of appreciation for the work being done.”
Blumenstock called public sector the “noblest of professions,” while warning about a “rough road ahead.”
Reykdal acknowledged there is no way to know when and how the pandemic will end, adding that Covid-19 is “something we’re going to have to live with,” while Nesbitt said the U.S. will probably never get to “zero” cases and will always need to continue monitoring warning signs of new outbreaks though she added that the nation will likely eventually stop counting cases and employing safety measures on a regular basis.
While the panelists listed a number of Covid-related concerns as the U.S. enters the holiday season, Gary argued the nation is “much better prepared” for future challenges because it is so much better organized and relationships are stronger.
Meanwhile, Norman said it’s important to celebrate the successes of the pandemic, including the “thousands of lives” saved as a result of national efforts.