Driving to get her first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, Dr. Anne Messman thought about her past 10 months as an emergency department doctor in Detroit.
How quickly the pandemic hit Detroit. How she and her colleagues were suddenly overwhelmed with patients sick and dying from a new disease that doctors weren’t sure how to treat.
The patients who died without seeing families in person one last time. The fickleness of a virus that left some unscathed but proved deadly for others. The worry of catching the virus herself.
“You just can’t think about it all the time; you have to go into survival mechanism and accept this is the reality: We’re in a COVID pandemic. We’re wearing PPE all the time. People are sick and going to die,” Messman said.
“So I was letting myself relive all that, but this time, there was some hope,” Messman said. “Because up until that moment, there wasn’t any real hope — you can quarantine and socially distance, but that doesn’t fix the problem.
“But now we have something that might fix things to a large extent, and it felt completely overwhelming,” she said. “When I got my shot, I was teary-eyed and they were tears of joy.”
For many, 2020 was a year of despair. COVID-19 has sickened hundreds of thousands of Michigan residents. Tens of thousands have been hospitalized. More than 12,000 have died.
The pandemic ravaged the state’s economy, deepened the political divide, and laid bare racial inequities in health care. Lockdowns and restrictions cut off people from friends and family, classmates and co-workers, impacting almost every aspect of everyday life.
But Messman isn’t the only person who feels that 2021 will be different. There’s lots of cautious optimism among state officials and health experts.
“Hopefully, 2020 is a one and done, and 2021 is the year where things get better,” said Dr. Eugene Liu, a critical care doctor at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor.
But experts also warn things could get worse before a turnaround occurs.
While Michigan dodged a post-Thanksgiving surge of coronavirus — and, in fact, most key indicators have been trending down during December — the numbers are still dangerously high. Experts are keeping a wary eye on data to see if travel and social gatherings around the Christmas and New Year’s holidays will reignite COVID-19 transmission rates.
“I’d be amazed if, if we truly are thinking pandemic beyond 2021,” said Dr. Darryl Elmouchi, president of Spectrum Health West Michigan. “I think more than likely as long as distribution and manufacturing of the vaccines occur as we’re told they will, by the summer things could be a whole lot better.
“But I think the next couple of months in particular are going to be really, really hard because we’re not going to have anywhere near herd immunity,” he said. “We’re going to have cold weather, and we’re going to have a lot of COVID and a lot of deaths.”
It’s an opinion shared by Linda Vail, Ingham County public health officer.
“I believe 2021 will be easier,” she said. “But we’ve got some work to do.”
And the reality is that the pandemic has taken many unexpected twists and turns, she said.
“It’s shifted from one thing to another to another,” Vail said. “It’s been constant shifting, and you go from being very confident about what you think and where you believe where you will be any point in time to like, ‘Oops. Well, let me roll back on that and try again.’ “
The backtracking and changing course that’s occurred during the pandemic — from use of masks, to worries about contamination through touching surfaces, to assessing the risks of in-person learning — “it’s not because we’re stupid,” Vail said. “We’re not trying to hide things from people. It’s just the reality of what we dealing with right now. It truly is that unpredictable.”
So while Vail thinks the upcoming summer will be much different than summer 2020 — “I really do believe so; I really hope so” — she added, “I’ve been wrong before. I could be proven wrong again.”
It’s not just health experts who are feeling bullish about 2021. Tim Bartik, a senior economist for the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo, said he thinks the economy is poised for a rebound once the virus is under control.
“Once the pandemic starts to subside, I actually think the economy will show considerable growth,” he said, adding that the federal stimulus programs have helped keep the economy afloat. “If the question is, is there enough money out there to fuel consumption demand for the economy, the answer is yes. There’s a lot of money out there.
“I think there will be good economic pickup in 2021, but whether that happens in June or September, it’s hard to say,” he said. “The key thing is controlling the virus.”
Dr. Paul Entler, a vice president at Sparrow Health Care, predicts “we’ll be in a much better place by fall.”
But he and others said much depends on the pace at which Michigan residents are vaccinated, the effectiveness of the vaccines and the point at which herd immunity is achieved.
“I think the role of the vaccine is going to be the most crucial factor” in determining the winding down of the pandemic, Entler said.
It’s not just a matter of getting people vaccinated, he said; it’s also a matter of seeing how long the vaccines are effective, and at what point people might need another booster shot.
“Scientists are still studying how long the vaccines last,” he said. “As we roll them out, we’ll see its effectiveness,” with the hope the vaccines will be effective long enough to achieve herd immunity.
And the fact is, even with the vaccines, herd immunity will take months to achieve, at best.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top expert in infectious disease, estimates 70 to 85% of Americans need to be vaccinated to see a “dramatic decrease” in COVID-19 cases and reach herd immunity. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has said she hopes to have 70% of Michigan resident age 16 and older vaccinated by the end of 2021.
While Dr. Adnan Munkarah, chief medical officer of Henry Ford Health System in metro Detroit, is “very optimistic” the vaccine will end the pandemic, “with that said, it’s going to take us some time to vaccinate enough people to develop that herd immunity” and for the virus to no longer be a significant health threat.
That means it’s imperative for individuals to continue to wear masks and practice social distancing and hand hygiene, “at least until we have a high enough percentage in the community who are vaccinated,” he said.
Elmouchi said he sees three big challenges for 2021.
The first: “Are we going to have the fortitude as a country to get through the next few months?” he said. “Because people are still going to have do the things that none of use like to do, like masking and social distancing. Without that, it’s going to be really rough.
“No. 2, I’m hopeful that all the kinks get worked out with vaccine production and distribution get worked out, so that the vaccination program ramps up and we have enough to give to everyone,” he said.
No. 3 is getting the American population on board with being vaccinated, he said.
“I think that’s going to be a lot of work from the federal government all the way to folks like myself to educate and really help people understand how getting this vaccine is surely safer than getting COVID,” Elmouchi said.
“Hopefully, we can convince enough people to get the vaccine. Then we can then extinguish the pandemic.”
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