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Guest Column | Light at end of COVID tunnel – but after a long, dark winter

By Ethel Branch

We seem to have added some important silver bullets to our artillery against COVID-19 with new booster shots that can bump vaccine efficacy up to 95%, vaccines for children five and over, and new monoclonal treatment that if administered early can tremendously reduce or even neutralize symptoms.

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Ethel Branch

This provides some much-needed hope in the long, dark battle we are waging against this seemingly unstoppable virus.

However, to reach the light at the end of the long, dark tunnel that is this winter, we must remain more vigilant than ever. Please, t’áá sh??dí, get yourself and your family fully vaccinated and continue to take COVID precautions, especially mask wearing.

The meaning of “fully vaccinated” has now changed to include a third shot, the so-called booster. Full vaccination is absolutely essential because we are learning that the vaccines diminish in efficacy over time, especially after six months.

In order to receive the full benefits of the vaccines, you must get your third dose.

Diminishing efficacy after six months is alarming because our most vulnerable – our elders and immunocompromised – received their vaccines in December and January. That was almost a full year ago.

The rest of us Navajos who accessed the vaccines largely did so in February and March – as soon as we were able to.

However, those vaccine doses are also now outside the six-month efficacy window. So, everyone on Navajo who is fully vaccinated should seek their booster immediately.

Don’t worry that you aren’t eligible because many vaccine providers, including drugstores, are not requiring proof of eligibility. Pfizer has applied to the CDC to make the booster available to the broader public, and that request will likely be granted soon as the nation continues to see high volumes of breakthrough infections.

Our team is hearing of an extremely high volume of breakthrough infections in the Navajo Nation. This is probably because many of us are outside our six-month efficacy window, and because the vaccine only boosts natural immunity.

Unfortunately, our community has a disproportionate incidence of underlying conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer and obesity. So, our community’s baseline immunity is already low, and our collective need for immunity boosting is greater than in non-Navajo communities.

If you received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, consider starting a new, full round of one of the other vaccines. Johnson & Johnson was never as effective as the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and has been identified as needing a booster within two months of administration.

Another important reason to get boosted is that only 57% of Navajo Nation resident tribal members are fully vaccinated. Tremendous thanks to Jill Jim and the Navajo Department of Health for providing this clarity.
Now we know that the Navajo vaccination rate is on par with the general U.S. vaccination rate, which is dismal, and nowhere near the 80-plus percent that is needed to achieve herd immunity.
This helps us understand that almost half of our residents are potential vectors for COVID-19, and helps explain why the virus continues to spread rapidly on the Nation.

Thankfully, children ages 5 and over are now eligible to receive the vaccine. Getting these little ones vaccinated right away could go a long way in rapidly boosting our overall vaccination rate on the Nation. This can also prevent our little ones from serving as unwitting vectors, contracting COVID-19 at school, being asymptomatic, and unknowingly spreading COVID to their loved ones at home.

Certainly, we wouldn’t want our beloved little children who bring so much light and joy into the world to play this unfortunate role.

And we certainly wouldn’t want our children to get sick with COVID-19 and have no protection against the life-threatening symptoms this could impose, the risk of a prolonged struggle with long COVID, or the risk of developing Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome.

MIS is a rare but serious condition associated with COVID that can lead to inflammation of the heart, lungs, kidney, brain, skin, eyes, or gastrointestinal organs.

If you are young and seemingly bulletproof, look around you. We are losing too many of your unvaccinated peers.

This winter’s strain of COVID-19 is more virulent and more easily spread than last winter’s version.

The Delta variant quickly became known by three terms: “younger, quicker, sicker.” It is continuing to seek out the unvaccinated on what appears to be a search-and-destroy mission.

New data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals that the unvaccinated are six times more likely to catch COVID, 19 times more likely to experience severe symptoms from COVID and be hospitalized, and 11 times more likely to die from COVID.

Spare yourself and your family the hard lessons that can be learned during this difficult time. Get fully vaccinated and boosted, and practice COVID safety precautions like double-masking, frequent hand washing or sanitizing, and social distancing. Where possible, avoid travel altogether.

Let’s emerge from this tunnel together, and in good health.

Ethel Branch is interim executive director of the Navajo and Hopi Families COVID Relief Fund.

 


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