Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, executive director of The Red Lines Project, is a contributor to CNN, where his columns won the Deadline Club Award for best opinion writing. Author of “A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today,” and the forthcoming “A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy and a History of Wars That Almost Happened,” he was formerly a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and CBS News in Europe and Asia. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
With New York, my home off and on for a half century, opening up on Monday, I’ve been reflecting on some hard, and very sad, facts of life for me and others in my position. For the past three months, since my return from France on March 13, I have remained carefully cloistered in our cabin in the woods in northeast Pennsylvania. In a long telehealth conversation with my pulmonologist of 30-plus years, I recently arrived at the disturbing conclusion that I may be unable to return to my New York City apartment, or visit my family in Paris, for years.
As far as the coronavirus is concerned, my prognosis, as Dr. Stuart Garay of NYU Langone Medical Center tactfully put it, is not good. At 75 with lifelong asthma, I’m likely a goner if I get it. As my doctor, a renowned pulmonologist, has told me, I am the most functioning 70-plus-year-old with a 30% lung capacity that he’s ever treated. Having covered wars, revolutions, political upheavals in 86 countries may have contributed to my stamina. That will all likely be of little consequence to the ravages of Covid-19.
I’m hardly alone. A substantial part of the American population is right alongside me – more than 50 million over the age of 65, 25 million with asthma, not to mention 34 million Americans with diabetes and 121 million with heart disease. There are some suggestions, particularly in research by Dr. Michael C. Peters and colleagues, that some asthmatics on steroids may do better as their treatments could block the more pernicious effects of the coronavirus. For most, however, life is a long way from returning to normal.
The New York Times recently polled 511 epidemiologists, few of whom I suspect face the same risks I and my cohort face. More than half said it could be as much as a year before they’d eat in a dine-in restaurant, send their kids to school, camp or day care, or work in a “shared office.” Nearly two-thirds said it would be more than a year before they’d show up at a sporting event, concert or play. More than 40% said they’d wait more than a year before attending a wedding or funeral, going to church or synagogue, or out with someone they didn’t know well.
And recent comments from other experts have hardly been more reassuring. The country’s top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci has warned that “we are still at the very beginning of really understanding” this disease.
Until there is a surefire treatment or vaccine, the risks of death simply outweigh any of the pleasures of my daily pre-Covid life. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the annual influenza vaccine reduces the risk of flu by between 40 and 60% “during seasons when most circulating flu viruses are well-matched to the vaccine.” The CDC also notes that “flu vaccination has been shown in several studies to reduce severity of illness in people who get vaccinated but still get sick.”
Considerable questions remain over whether asthmatics like myself, whose lungs have already been damaged over decades, might do much better with a vaccine for this far more virulent and deadly virus.
Dr. Paul Stoffels, chief scientific officer at Johnson & Johnson, confirmed my fears when he told Bloomberg News that there was a debate about this rate of effectiveness in the medical community: “Is 50% enough? Does it have to be 70%? Does it have to be 90%? If you can prevent 7 out of 10 people from getting infected or getting sick, it’s valuable to do a large vaccination.”
Indeed, more than a quarter century after I did the first report for CBS News on the discovery of HIV at the Institut Pasteur, there is still no vaccine since the virus itself has an extremely high mutation rate.
Even the effective triple cocktail drug treatment took more than a decade to develop. Alarmingly, there are recent indications that the coronavirus also has begun mutating into a more easily transmittable form, though much research remains to be done on what that means for infection rates and vaccine development.
Stoffels says the accepted efficacy target is 70%. But even if it reaches that level, do I really want to roll the dice on a 3 in 10 odds of contracting a disease that will almost certainly prove deadly? And that the risk might be even greater for those of us with Type A blood – a factor that a European study suggested may raise the risk and severity of infection?
Though many countries are emerging from lockdown this month, the virus has far from run its course. World Health Organization numbers for June 22 showed more than 8.8 million infections and 465,000 deaths globally – with about 152,000 of those cases and more than 4,000 deaths recorded in the previous 24 hours.
As we celebrate America’s opening up, there must be millions of Americans just like myself asking themselves, is this my life until the end? Must we feel marginalized as our friends and relatives return to work and pick up their lives? At the same time, Donald Trump seems to have largely dialed out of the pandemic campaign. His meetings with the White House coronavirus task force have been cut back and his concern now seems more about the economy than the coronavirus victims.
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So, what to do for people like me? Probably precisely what I’m doing now. Hibernate. My latest book has been written, will be published early next year and I’ll likely do a virtual book tour of America, Europe and Asia.
I suspect I am hardly alone. Life will not emerge for many of us. My vibrant professional life is hardly compensation for the friends and relatives I am missing and the ability to watch my 7-year-old grandson grow up in person, rather than on the end of a Zoom call. But Trump should remember that any number of us will be voting come November (many by absentee ballot). He should pay some attention to our not insignificant bloc before he writes us off.