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Medisina at Politika by Dr. Rey Pagtakhan  

COVID-19 vaccines in sight, masks onwards

by Dr. Rey D. Pagtakhan

December 1, 2020 – More so now, with vaccines in clear sight, that vigilance on life-saving public health measures, like wearing a facemask, should be sustained. Slowing community transmission of the COVID virus with such measures would ultimately:

  • minimize the number of Canadians falling ill to COVID-19 and losing their lives;
  • prevent overwhelming the hospitals and intensive care units; and
  • prevent burnout among nurses, doctors, and other frontline health-care workers;

These shall be our collective pledge; these shall propel our collective endeavour as we confront the pandemic resurgence.

Update on the human toll

Total cases: Total deaths:
  • World – 61,165,357
  • Canada – 357,099
  • USA – 12,895,752
  • Philippines – 425,918
  • World – 1,435,374
  • Canada – 11,819
  • USA – 263,525
  • Philippines – 8,255
Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Tracker, 27 November 2020

Come Tuesday December 8, the pandemic will have reached the one-year mark since it started as a cluster of atypical pneumonia of unknown pathogen in Wuhan City, China. Since then, more than 61 million citizens have fallen ill to COVID-19 and nearly 1.5 million have died globally.

In the USA total cases are fast approaching 13 million and deaths are now over a quarter of a million. Canada shares its longest land border and air space with the USA and has maintained a reciprocal ban on land travel since March of this year, except for essential purposes.

Canada has since had slightly over a third of a million cases and over 11,000 deaths. In the Philippines, the total patients diagnosed are coming closer to half a million, of whom more than 8,000 have lost their lives.

Contrasting headlines

The top stories of the past month have coalesced into two contrasting sets of headlines: 1. the worsening pandemic in almost all parts of the world, Canada included; and 2. the imminent arrival of two vaccines by way of Emergency Use Authorization – the Pfizer-GermanBioNTech and Moderna in the US – and possibly a third from Oxford University/AstraZeneca in the United Kingdom.

Vaccines in sight

On November 27, Rachel Aiello of CTV News reported on Prime Minister Trudeau’s announcement that “former NATO commander Major-General Dany Fortin will be leading Canada’s vaccine distribution efforts.” The day before, she reported on the announcement by Health Canada’s chief medical adviser Dr. Sharma, that approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for use in Canada could come “along the same pre-Christmas timeline as the American and European health agencies,” that is, on December 10th. Apparently, the US Food and Drug Administration has scheduled its meeting on the same date to decide whether to give Pfizer’s vaccine the all-clear, with a decision on Moderna to follow soon.

Public health measure and advice

Focus: Notwithstanding the uplifting news on vaccines, the grim headlines on the resurgence of cases across Canada and on more restrictive measures ordered by provincial and city governments bring me to underscore the theme I shared in my last commentary. That is to follow life-saving public health advice as we wait for the anticipated rollout of the vaccines.

Measures: Indeed, we still need in the meantime to physically distance, wash our hands with soap and water frequently or use hand sanitizers, avoid handshakes and touching our faces, avoid large gatherings, and wear a facemask.

Science-based evidence

Seven observational and epidemiological studies validate the efficacy of facemasks in reducing the emission of virus-laden droplets and the inhalation of these droplets by the wearer.

The big droplets are heavier, travel a short distance of less than six feet, and fall on surfaces or are inhaled by another person within that distance. The smaller droplets, also called aerosols, are lighter, travel a longer distance, linger in the air for some time before falling on surfaces or inhaled by another person within the vicinity.

This is the scenario among the infected and non-infected persons. It occurs when we attend a concert, participate in or listen to a choir, sing, shout or engage in a group or one-to-one private conversation with our family and circle of friends.

Scientific cavalry

Alluding to Pfizer-BioNTech’s and Moderna’s forthcoming applications for emergency use authorization for their vaccines as “the cavalry,” US top and trusted pandemic expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci said recently, “If you’re fighting a battle and the cavalry is on the way, you don’t stop shooting; you keep going until the cavalry gets here, and then you might even want to continue fighting.”

Referring a week later to the third vaccine candidate, Oxford University/AstraZeneca, and other therapeutic breakthroughs as the “scientific cavalry,” UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson echoed the same sentiments in similar language. “We can hear the drumming hooves of the cavalry coming over the brow of the hill, but they are not here yet.”

Unanswered questions about vaccinations and masks

Dr. Larry Corey, a leader of the COVID-19 Prevention Network and a Professor of Medicine at the University of Washington, made the following observations and raised the accompanying questions in his critique, The Messenger RNA Vaccines and Masks, posted on the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center website:

  1. The vaccine clinical trials are not focused on whether a vaccine prevents someone from getting the virus at all.
  2. In other words, a COVID-19 vaccine may benefit the individual who gets vaccinated, but the virus may still invade the body and it’s possible that a vaccinated person can still spread the virus to others.
  3. Will vaccinated persons be asymptomatic carriers who can still transmit throughout their household, their community, and their school?
  4. Will I still have to wear that mask? And the answer to this is: until we know more, yes.
  5. Do we need to continue to wear masks with other people around, especially casual acquaintances or strangers? At the moment, the answer is still yes until we unravel these issues.

Let us hope the appropriate study is done.

Rey D. Pagtakhan, P.C., O.M., LL.D., Sc.D., M.Sc., M.D., is a retired lung specialist and professor and former cabinet minister and Parliamentary Secretary to Canada’s Prime Minister. He did his medical studies and training at the University of the Philippines, Washington University (St. Louis), University of Manitoba and University of Arizona. A widely published writer and lecturer, he spoke on “The Global Threat of Infectious Diseases” at the G-8 Science Ministers/Advisors Meeting held in Berlin, Germany on June 13 to 15, 2003.

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