Turbulent first year for COVID-19 vaccinations

Carla K. Johnson
The Associated Press

One year ago, the biggest vaccination drive in American history began with a flush of excitement in an otherwise gloomy December. Trucks loaded with freezer-packed vials of a COVID-19 vaccine that had proved wildly successful in clinical trials fanned out across the land, bringing shots that many hoped would spell the end of the crisis.

That hasn’t happened. A year later, too many Americans remain unvaccinated and too many are dying.

The nation’s COVID-19 death toll stands at around 800,000 as the anniversary of the U.S. vaccine rollout arrives. A year ago it stood at 300,000. An untold number of lives, perhaps tens of thousands, have been saved by vaccination. But what might have been a time to celebrate a scientific achievement is fraught with discord and mourning.

National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins said scientists and health officials may have underestimated how the spread of misinformation could hobble the “astounding achievement” of the vaccines.

“Deaths continue … most of them unvaccinated, most of the unvaccinated because somebody somewhere fed them information that was categorically wrong and dangerous,” Collins said.

Developed and rolled out at blistering speed, the vaccines have proved incredibly safe and highly effective at preventing deaths and hospitalizations. Unvaccinated people have a 14 times higher risk of dying compared with fully vaccinated people, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated based on available data from September.

Their effectiveness has held up for the most part, allowing schools to reopen, restaurants to welcome diners and families to gather for the holidays. At last count, 95% of Americans 65 and older had had at least one shot.

“In terms of scientific, public health and logistical achievements, this is in the same category as putting a man on the moon,” said Dr. David Dowdy, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The vaccines’ first year has been rocky with the disappointment of breakthrough infections, the political strife over mandates and, now, worries about whether the mutant omicron will evade protection.

Despite all that, Dr. David Dowdy, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins, said, “we’re going to look back and say the vaccines were a huge success story.”

One of the great missed opportunities of the COVID-19 pandemic is the shunning of vaccination by many Americans.

This fall, Rachel McKibbens, 45, lost her father and brother to COVID-19. Both had refused the protection of vaccination because they believed false conspiracy theories that the shots contained poison.

“What an embarrassment of a tragedy,” McKibbens said. “It didn’t have to be this way.”

More than 228,500 Americans have died from COVID-19 since April 19, the date when all U.S. adults were eligible to be vaccinated. That’s about 29% of the count since the first U.S. coronavirus deaths were recorded in February 2020, according to an Associated Press analysis.

McKibbens pieced together what happened from text messages on her brother’s phone. Some of the texts she read after his death, including back-and-forth messages with a cousin who cited TikTok as the source of bad advice.

“My brother did not seek medical attention for my dad,” keeping him lying on his back, even as his breathing began to sound like a broken-down motor, said McKibbens, who lives across the country in Rochester, New York.

Her father, Pete Camacho, died Oct. 22 at age 67. McKibbens flew to California to help with arrangements.

Her brother was sick, too, but “he refused to let me into the house because he said I shed coronavirus because I was vaccinated,” McKibbens recalled. “It was a strange new belief I had never heard before.”

A friend found her brother’s body after noticing food deliveries untouched on the porch. Peter Camacho, named for his father, died Nov. 8 at age 44.

“For me to have lost two-thirds of my family, it just levels you,” McKibbens said.