Early this summer, it looked for a hot minute like we might be emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic. New cases had plummeted. We hopped on airplanes, headed to ball games and got back together with friends. And we looked forward to a fall of almost normal activity.
Now, fall is here, and once again we’re in the grip of the pandemic. State health officials say we’re in a fourth wave, driven by the contagious delta variant and large numbers of unvaccinated Minnesotans.
Debates about masks and vaccines are splitting school boards and families. The threat of new variants is on the horizon. Some experts predict the pandemic will ease, while others say it will get worse.
Host Angela Davis talked with Dr. Greg Poland, the head of Mayo Clinic's Vaccine Research Group and Dr. Bravada Garrett-Akinsanya, a clinical psychologist who specializes in African American mental health, about how to get through yet another wave of uncertainty and stress.
Why is the coronavirus still spreading so widely? For one, it’s “highly infectious and transmissible,” Poland said.
But people are also making decisions that could extend the pandemic. “It amazes me: People are not wearing masks!” Poland said. “The data are very, very clear here that wearing a mask and being fully vaccinated offers you superior protection.”
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There are a variety of reasons why people are deciding not to take appropriate safety precautions during the pandemic.
Garrett-Akinsanya highlighted the impact of “pandemic fatigue” and grief: “People do want it to be over. They feel like they’ve suffered long enough without those human connections.”
“This has been a national and global trauma for all of us, and this trauma just keeps going on and on,” Poland said.
On top of that fatigue, “People are distrusting the science” around masking and vaccinations, Garrett-Akinsanya added.
“It almost seems as a nation that we’ve lost our capacity for critical reasoning,” Poland said. “In January of 2020 … could you even imagine that I would be telling you that one out of every 490 Americans will be dead of COVID 18 months from now, and I could have prevented that with a 25-cent mask and a vaccine? It’s almost inconceivable.”
How should people speak to friends and loved ones who are reluctant to get the vaccine?
Garrett-Akinsanya has tried to make clear to people who are vaccine hesitant that “Every time they say no, they are making a choice,” and that there are consequences to every choice.
“Is it a risk you want to take? What if you throw the dice and you get the disease because you didn’t get the shot? Are you able to be comfortable with knowing that your children don’t have a parent if you die?” Garrett-Akinsanya said.
Garrett-Akinsanya also recommended telling loved ones who aren’t being careful that you’re scared about the risks they’re taking — and even angry they’re not considering how much you value their life.
“Your life isn’t just your own. You’re a part of me, and I’m a part of you. And even if you don’t trust the government, don’t you trust me?” Garrett-Akinsanya said.
Garrett-Akinsanya explained that if your loved ones aren’t concerned for themselves, they might care that they’re hurting and scaring you.
Even in uncertain times, “There are really positive steps that people can take that not only protect their health and build resilience but give them back some of this sense of control,” Poland said.
For example, when people get vaccinated and wear masks, they can see friends and loved ones again knowing they’ve taken the necessary measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus, Poland said.
Poland cautioned that the COVID-19 vaccines are designed to be “disease-blocking, not necessarily infection-blocking.” That means the risk of hospitalization from a COVID-19 is very low if you’re vaccinated, but you can still get a mild or asymptomatic case of COVID-19, and you can still spread it.
For this reason, Poland recommended that all people — even those who are vaccinated — avoid indoor and very crowded outdoor settings, where the risk of transmission is high.
That being said, Poland strongly recommended that all eligible Americans get vaccinated against COVID-19 — even those who already have some natural immunity from a previous infection.
“The breakthrough rate … of infection is so much higher in people who previously were infected and don’t get vaccinated versus people who were previously [infected] and get at least one dose of vaccine,” Poland explained.
Poland and Garrett-Akinsanya have both seen the exceptional toll that the ongoing pandemic has taken on health care providers in particular.
Garrett-Akinsanya said health care providers have felt a sense of loss and helplessness, especially in the face of suffering from COVID-19 that could have been prevented by recommended safety measures.
“We’re going to see a generation of health care providers, I think, with PTSD,” Poland said.
Dr. Greg Poland is an infectious disease doctor and head of Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group.
Dr. Bravada Garrett-Akinsanya is a clinical psychologist in Plymouth who specializes in African American mental health.
Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.