We can breathe a sigh of relief we now have two approved vaccines, with more probably on the way, over a million medical workers vaccinated with the first of two shots, and very few serious reactions. This truly is lights at the end of a very long, very dark tunnel. And therein resides the challenge still facing us.

First, a little more about vaccines. We should be thankful for our immigrants because they are vital to every aspect of our lives. In particular, immigrants have been instrumental in developing these vaccines. Dr. Katalin Kariko, a Hungarian immigrant, did vital research on mRNA (messenger RiboNucleic Acid), which is the foundation of both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Turkish immigrant (to Germany) Uğur Şahin was one of the lead scientists in developing the Pfizer-BioNTec vaccine. Lebanese immigrant Noubar Afeyan and Canadian Derrick Rossi are two of the co-founders of Moderna.

We also need to recognize the vital role of women in developing these vaccines. In addition to Dr. Kariko, we must be immensely thankful for African American Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett (Pfizer vaccine) and Dr. Hamilton Bennett who was the lead scientist developing the Moderna vaccine.

These and many others have done their jobs in developing these vaccines. Now, it is time—far past time actually—for all of us to do our jobs in combating COVID.

We simply, we absolutely cannot let our guard now. Having the vaccines cannot and will not save us in the short run. For the next five or six months, possibly longer, we must continue to take all of the precautions medical professionals have been begging us to take. We must wear our masks, “social” distance, stay at home as much as possible. As difficult and painful as this has been and continues to be, we cannot visit with family or friends.

If you care about your own safety and well being, if you care about your friends, if you care about your loved ones, remaining patient and observing all safety recommendations is imperative. Unfortunately, many people have chosen not to do these things over Christmas. We must do better for New Year’s.

We saw the warnings of what would happen if we did not follow safety recommendations before Thanksgiving. Millions of people ignored those warnings, just as millions of people ignored those warnings at Christmas. Sadly, we saw the consequences of that with millions more infections and tens of thousands more deaths. We still are experiencing those consequences. And thanks to Christmas travel and gatherings, it is about to get much worse.

The numbers are staggering. We probably will have 20 million infections by January 1, with close to 350,000 dead. So many dead is beyond comprehension. How do we wrap our heads around hundreds of thousands dead; millions infected; hundreds of millions of tests needed; literally billions of doses of vaccines? It boggles the mind. However, try to think about waking up in McAllen tomorrow morning, and from Faysville to the north, Weslaco to the east, Progresso to the south and Palmview to the west, you are the only human being in the entire area. That still is far less than the number of those who have died.

We can stop this. We can slow the rate of infections; we can reduce the number of deaths. We can hold the fort until the vaccine calvary arrives. We must.

One additional thing that could help significantly is highly aggressive testing. In mid April, I wrote a column saying we needed to be testing 25 million people a day. I wasn’t exaggerating. The Trump administration did not ramp up testing as it should have. Indeed Trump repeatedly discouraged testing. Consequently, people died who should be alive and healthy today.

Of course, we did not have the capacity in April to test 25 million people daily. We have come no where close to that number. The most we have tested in one day is a little over 2.2 million people on 5 December. (https://covidtracking.com/data/charts/us-daily-tests) We needed to develop tests that met numerous criteria, with the most important being at least relatively highly accurate. But they also needed to be tests that were relatively inexpensive to produce, gave results within a few minutes, easy to self-administer, and could be taken in the home like pregnancy tests.

Such tests exist now, and the FDA finally has approved them. Some health care professionals are calling for mass production of these tests, being made available at no or low costs, and people testing themselves every three to five days. They are saying we need to be doing at least 20 million tests a day. But, with a population of 290 million over the age of ten, (https://www.statista.com/statistics/241488/population-of-the-us-by-sex-and-age/) we probably need to double that number.

How do we get that many home tests into the hands of people? Trump certainly is not going to make any effort to do this, but we can hope one of President Biden’s first actions will be to invoke the Defense Production Act to get companies to manufacture hundreds of millions of these tests. Tests need to be made available to people at a very low cost; or, for those out of work or living below the poverty line, for free. In poverty ridden urban areas where there are “pharmacy deserts”, kiosks need to be opened where people easily can go to obtain tests, and eventually receive vaccinations. We cannot allow “vaccine deserts.” There needs to be a public education campaign encouraging/urging people to test themselves and family members regularly, with information on where to obtain the tests and how to administer them.

If we can test aggressively, while wearing masks and maintaining social distancing, we can accomplish several positive things. We can reopen or schools, reopen our economy more fully, return people to work, see our family and friends. Much more importantly, we will lower the rate of new infections; and in the process, lower the number of deaths.

Yes, we are tired of this most unwelcome “guest”. We are tired of all of the health precautions some (unfortunately not all) of us have been taking. We are not a patient people, and our patience has worn thin. But, we are not through the worst of the pandemic even though there definitely is a light at the end of the tunnel.

The problem for us is that tunnel still is very long and very treacherous; but we can brighten that light and improve our passage through this tunnel. To do so, we must do a better job of protecting ourselves, our loved ones, our friends, our co-workers, our neighbors than we have been doing. We can see the light. We can be there in five or six months. But we must renew our commitment to being safe.

Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by writer and educator Samuel Freeman. The column appears in The Rio Grande Guardian with the permission of the author. Freeman can be reached via email at: [email protected].

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows BioNTech CEO Uğur Şahin. (Photo courtesy: BioNTech)

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