Navigating the COVID-19 crisis for more than a year has been exhausting for everyone. Most of us have put our lives on hold in some way. Yet even though mass vaccinations are bringing us closer to the end of the pandemic, for some families, the stakes are higher than ever. Mine is one of them: We recently learned that my wife is pregnant. Her pregnancy is an absolute blessing, but it also makes her much more likely than her non-pregnant peers to suffer from severe illness if she gets COVID-19.

That’s why I’ve watched in dismay as Maine’s COVID-19 cases jumped upward after several weeks of decline. Over the last two weeks, the number of cases increased by 33 percent in Maine. Our seven-day average is now about the same as it was in early December when the winter surge was building, and 82 people are hospitalized across the state – the highest number in nearly three weeks.

Health experts have been warning that with the more transmissible, and potentially more lethal, B117 variant of the coronavirus circulating across the country, we could see another surge. That’s likely been exacerbated by many governors lifting restrictions on high-risk activities such as indoor dining and drinking in bars. For example, the reopening of one bar in rural Illinois led to at least 46 COVID-19 cases, a hospitalization and a school closure.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, summed up our situation recently by saying she feels a sense of “impending doom” as cases increase in many parts of the country.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that almost a quarter of people in Maine have received their final dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and that number will soon skyrocket now that anyone aged 16 or older is eligible to get vaccinated. Even better, we know the vaccines are working because deaths from COVID-19 among nursing home residents, who are typically at high risk and are now vaccinated at higher rates than younger people, have plummeted.

Some might misconstrue that information and think it’s OK to ease up on restrictions, but the new variants spreading mean we can’t yet. Experts warn that the B117 variant might be spreading among young people at a higher rate than previous iterations of the virus, and it could make them sicker as well. Maine’s current surge is being driven largely by people under 30.

In several places, hospitalizations among younger people have shot up. My wife’s work colleague, a mom in her 40s, is hooked on oxygen in a Michigan hospital, battling coronavirus-induced pneumonia. These types of stories are becoming more common.

Now is not the time to let up. Dr. Peter Hotez, an infectious-disease expert, recently estimated that if Americans stay vigilant for another four to six weeks, we’ll put the worst behind us. That doesn’t mean the virus will disappear in four weeks. It means more people will be vaccinated and we’ll be able to blunt the spread of the more contagious variant before it infects and kills more people. We still have a long way to go to hit the level of vaccination – roughly 75 percent of the population – that health experts say we need to reach to neutralize the virus.

The game plan for slowing the virus down is the same as it’s always been. Wear masks whenever you leave your home or interact with people outside of your immediate household. Stay physically distant and avoid being indoors with people. Limit non-essential travel. And, of course, get vaccinated as soon as you can.

At the end of 2020, my organization held an online vigil where people read the names of COVID-19 patients who passed away. Their names and the stories of their lives still keep me up at night. What’s worse is that many of them died alone, struggling to breathe as they said goodbye to loved ones via video chat.

Don’t let yourself or your loved ones, or my loved ones, for that matter, suffer that fate when we’re so close to putting the worst of this crisis behind us. Stay the course.


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