Anthony Fauci told CNN’s Anderson Cooper during a Feb. 18 interview that Americans should continue wearing masks and following social distancing guidelines.
Immediately, conservative pundits claimed that he and liberal politicians were “moving the goalposts” in order to stretch out the pandemic.
Fauci, the nation’s leading expert in infectious disease, has become a scapegoat for those who don’t like that he makes recommendations based on the available data.
In Dec. 2020, he was criticized for changing his opinion about how many Americans need to be vaccinated in order to develop herd immunity.
In Jan. 2021, conservatives decried him saying it could help to wear two masks because he had said masks were not necessary at the beginning of the pandemic.
Most recently, Fauci was lambasted for refusing to make recommendations about vaccinated grandparents being able to see their unvaccinated grandchildren without masks and social distancing.
It is true that the government and Dr. Fauci have not always been right on every point and the guidance has changed.
Yet, such attacks ultimately miss the point. They are like washed-up football commentators complaining from the booth about every incomplete pass.
While Fauci is a great resource, he is not a prophet. He makes mistakes because of incomplete data and because we are dealing with a novel virus.
So much of what we want to know about COVID-19, herd immunity and the ability of vaccinated individuals to transmit the virus is not knowable at the present time.
It is not a matter of moving the goalposts. There is a fog on the field, and we cannot see the post yet.
So, what is the truth?
Should we still wear masks after vaccination? Can fully vaccinated grandparents see their grandchildren? What good is the vaccine if we cannot return to normal?
With regard to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, we need to acknowledge that they were never intended to be pandemic-ending plays.
Eradicating viruses is a grind – like slowly marching down the field to score, to continue the football metaphor.
If we are lucky, we have made it to halftime, but we still have two more quarters to play.
Remember, vaccines did not immediately end the measles with a victory dance.
We started vaccinating children in the 1960’s. By 1978, the CDC set a goal to eliminate measles from the U.S. by 1982. Not only was the goal missed but 1989 also saw several outbreaks of measles among vaccinated children.
This prompted the CDC to recommend a second dose of the MMR vaccine. I am sure that today’s commentators would have flagged the CDC for delay of game.
Ultimately, measles was declared eliminated in the U.S. by the World Health Organization in 2000, but it took almost 40 years.
Viruses are not eradicated simply because the coach calls the equivalent of a flea flicker from the infectious disease playbook. Life will probably return to a new normal soon but right now we are still in the game.
So, let’s be honest with each other as we enter another quarter of this pandemic: there are still compelling reasons for us to continue to wear masks and to follow social distancing guidelines.
First, the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine has repeatedly shown a 95% efficiency and the Moderna vaccine has shown a 94% efficiency in preventing symptomatic infection.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has a lower efficiency rate of 66%, but all three approved vaccines seem highly effective at preventing severe illness and death.
While encouraging, the leading vaccines are still 5-6% ineffective against COVID-19, plus there are many people that will not be medically able to take the vaccine. Therefore, the vaccine is not a cure all.
Second, we need to understand what efficiency means.
The Food and Drug Administration granted approval of these vaccines based on their ability to prevent the symptoms associated with the coronavirus, not based on how contagious the vaccinated are.
Vaccination does not guarantee that an individual cannot contract the virus and possibly infect others. It simply means that the vaccines are up to 95% effective at dealing with symptoms.
Traditional vaccines use a weakened strain of a virus or inactive virus to help the body build defenses against a virus towards immunity. In essence, the body gets to experience the whole virus and builds a response to that. We have worked with these for over a century.
Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are mRNA vaccines, which function differently. They use bits of genetic material from a virus in order to trigger a targeted immune response in the body.
With regard to COVID-19, both vaccines target the “spike protein” that allows COVID-19 to attach to healthy cells.
In essence, these vaccines give the body a taste of part of the virus and then the body can develop that aspect. It is like blitzing on a third down when you overheard the other team calling a play in their huddle.
How effective are mRNA vaccines in preventing vaccinated people from spreading a virus?
While mRNA vaccines have been studied for decades, a large-scale trial like what we are seeing today has not been done. Therefore, the answer is, “we just do not know yet.”
So, it is justifiable for experts like Dr. Fauci to be reluctant to ease mask restrictions or recommend that vaccinated grandparents can spend unmasked time in close proximity to unvaccinated grandchildren. We need better data.
So, what do we do right now? In short, we stick with what we know works. You do not change an effective defense at halftime without good data.
We know social distancing and masks are working. As more and more Americans are vaccinated, we can start thinking about easing restrictions based on solid risk assessment.
Our vaccines are very promising, but they are not a Patrick Mahomes’ unstoppable lighting pass up the middle. Plus, public health officials still need time to distribute the vaccines and confirm immunity and transmutability.
Additionally, the CDC, federal government and media need to focus on having a less confusing message.
Our public health leaders need to be willing to say, “We were wrong,” or, “We just did not have enough data months ago.” Maybe they could bring on Tony Romo for a weekly play-by-play analysis.
Finally, we all need to calm down, do a lot less armchair quarterbacking, follow the research and stop flagging people for face masking.
Games may be won by three- or four-star offensive players, but championships are won by defense.
Senior Staff Chaplain and Clinical Ethicist at the Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock, Arkansas.