As vaccines spread across the globe, and cities around the country thaw from under virus restrictions, one topic has been top of mind: What does a post-pandemic future look like?
A panel of experts from Oregon State University took up pieces of that question Tuesday in a forum addressing questions about the next steps for getting the population vaccinated, what it might take to travel internationally this summer and what lessons we can all take away from the COVID-19 crisis.
International travel might be a possibility this summer — but it’ll be important for travelers to be vaccinated and aware of their surroundings, according to Chunhuei Chi, the director of OSU’s Center for Global Health.
“Even before vaccination, there’s a component of travel that’s safe, and there’s a component of travel is not so safe,” Chi said Tuesday.
According to Chi, airplane flights are actually safer than some might expect: With planes constantly filtering the air, that regular scrubbing can make them cleaner than other indoor spaces.
But areas outside the plane can be more challenging: Security check areas and other common spaces in airports can promote higher risks if they’re not adequately spaced apart or cleaned regularly, Chi said.
And since each country has had a different virus response, every corner of the globe faces a slightly different state of the virus.
Chi said some regions are still experiencing significant virus spread and mutation, while others are living life close to normal after strong lockdowns all but kept out the virus.
“I would suggest, look at the destination,” Chi advises travelers. “You want to see the country you’re traveling to be relatively safe, and there’s no new variants ....”
An annual vaccine?
The first round of COVID-19 shots might not be the last, according to Gaurav Sahay, an associate professor of pharmacy who’s an expert in vaccine development.
Since the virus won’t be going away even when many more people are vaccinated, continued mutations could reduce the effectiveness of already existing vaccines, Sahay said. That could make it necessary to get a new shot every year, just like for the flu.
“There is an assumption that perhaps this might be an annual event, because the virus will still be around,” Sahay said. “But having said that, new technologies are being built and the hope is that this would really go down. So they are working on basically doing a booster shot.”
And according to Brett Tyler, who directs the university’s project to sequence and catalogue variants of the virus in Oregon, making sure populations across the globe are vaccinated could help reduce variants in the future.
That’s because the more the virus spreads, the more it mutates — meaning there’s a higher likelihood it’ll mutate in a way that makes it less susceptible to the vaccine.
“It’s going to be very important to help countries all around the world control the virus,” Tyler said. “If we vaccinate all Americans but the virus is running unchecked elsewhere in the world, that creates the possibility of more and more variants appearing and returning back onto our shores, and this is one of the challenges that China is facing right now.”
Public health failures?
Tuesday’s experts agreed: The response to COVID-19 has exposed plenty of cracks in public health systems across the country and state that can be improved before future crises.
“It’s also laid bare the systemic inequities in our healthcare system — the lack of access particularly for persons with disabilities, the lack of access for vulnerable and minority communities and special populations,” said Courtney Campbell, who’s researching the prioritization of vaccine distribution.
Since some groups already have more difficulties getting access to health care — like those with lower incomes, those who aren’t as mobile or those without internet — the stress the pandemic has put on the system has made it even harder.
Campbell points to vaccine distribution as an example, and how the state’s Latino population has made up a larger share of Oregon’s virus cases but a smaller share of its vaccinations.
The distribution’s also shown how struggles in public health staffing can stymie vaccination efforts, said Joseph Agor, who studies vaccine supply chains.
“I can have millions or trillions of pounds of supplies, but if I don’t have the people to distribute it, then really it’s just going to create longer lines, waits and inefficiencies that really weren’t planned to be there to begin with,” Agor said.
And the hesitancy among some groups to get vaccinated has shown the impact systemic healthcare challenges, according to Daniel López-Cevallos, an associate professor of ethnic studies.
“It takes a consistent, thoughtful, conscious effort to reach out to those communities, so if those systems haven’t been there in the past, it makes it that much harder,” López-Cevallos said.
Or reasons to cheer?
But an analysis of the public health response to the virus shouldn’t be all doom and gloom, according to Marion Ceraso, an associate professor who studies public health communication.
The fact that experts have gotten effective vaccines onto the market in less than a year is something to celebrate, Ceraso said — and something that celebrating might actually encourage more people to get vaccinated.
“I think as that community experience grows, the resistance to accepting the vaccine will get lower,” Ceraso said. “These vaccines are an incredible, amazing public health success story, and I think we need to share that information with the public to really fully inform them of this picture.”