No. 23 ~ Somerville ~ Jan. 24, 2021

Happy Anniversary, you lousy virus

This just in: today’s Le Journal du Dimanche reports that France will likely go into a third lockdown, probably starting next weekend and lasting at least three weeks. An official announcement is expected in a few days.

A year ago the first case of Covid-19 appeared in the U.S., in Washington State. While this anniversary is no cause for humans to celebrate, it seems like the virus is feeling festive, not by throwing a party but by throwing off mutations, notably in the UK and South Africa. The so-called “UK variant,” purported to be 50% more contagious, is expected to be dominant in both Massachusetts and France by mid-March. This has prompted authorities in France to announce that single-layer cloth masks — like the homemade ones — should no longer be used. The variant calls for more serious filtration.  

When the first lockdown started in Paris last March 17, only those in healthcare had access to masks. The rest of us went without, even as the government downplayed the need for them. (It was broadly understood afterward that health officials had favored calming the public over holding up the scientific evidence, because there were not enough masks to go around.) For weeks, when we ventured out of the apartment, equipped with our handwritten permission slips giving the reason for our exodus, it was all distancing and no masking. 

Rachida Dati, the center-right proactive mayor of the seventh arrondissement, publishes an emailed Information Letter. We had subscribed and become avid readers. About half way through the two-month lockdown, she announced that free masks would be available to the arrondissement’s senior citizens. A couple days later we waited in line on the sidewalk on rue Amélie, just around the corner from our place. It was a beautiful spring morning, another in so many days of extraordinary weather that paints my memory of the lockdown. I could hardly believe it when I saw that a few people in line already had masks. 

Where did they get those? I thought. Masks would not be available for sale in pharmacies until several weeks later. 

Inside the little distribution center, I was handed a simple cloth mask — the color, a somewhat faded neon yellow. I was too shy and too thankful to ask for another color. Local high school students had learned how to make them and set up a workshop in their otherwise closed school. Finally I had a physical barrier against the virus. It was the first mask I ever owned. 

Now, with all of continental France hunkered down under a 6 pm to 6 am curfew and restrictions being eased up in Massachusetts, I’m looking forward to my first shot against the coronavirus. When that will come is anybody’s guess. But it sure looks like I’ll have to wait longer than I did for my first mask. 

The challenge during the near term is being described as a race between wider availability of vaccines and the rapid spread of the more contagious virus. It is the vaccination effort, rather than the variant, that has stumbled out of the blocks. 

After enduring withering criticism, French President Emmanuel Macron and his pandemic response team appear to have turned a corner with their vaccine rollout. Only about 500 had been vaccinated in France at the end of the first week of January. Yesterday, France reached its goal of administering one million first doses ahead of schedule. 

Here in Massachusetts, the state is languishing in 31st place among the 50 states for vaccine administration (according to the Washington Post). Governor Charlie Baker is blaming slow distribution by the federal government for his troubles, but a recent count showed that only about half of available doses had been administered. As of January 21, 360,000 had been vaccinated in the state. 

While noting these differences, we keep in mind that France has about 60 million more people than Massachusetts.  

Officials in France have been hamstrung by a sweeping anti-vaxx sentiment that is not new but now poses a threat to mass vaccination against the coronavirus. The Local, an English-language aggregator of French news, on January 5 rated France as “one of the world’s most vaccine adverse countries,” comparing it to Mongolia. A poll for Le Figaro came back with 58% of French respondents saying they will refuse all vaccines. (In the U.S., 21% say they will refuse the vaccine.) It doesn’t help that only half of PCPs in France say they will get vaccinated. 

Laboring under this sentiment, French authorities started their vaccination rollout cautiously, at first requiring every nursing home patient to get a doctor’s approval before being vaccinated. Now there are 833 vaccination centers open in continental France. As a sign that there might not be as many anti-vaxxers as the poll indicates, the national telephone reservation service has been overwhelmed, and reservation websites crashed from high demand. Reacting to a two-week wait in some cities, Health Minister Olivier Véran announced on Tuesday that a national waiting list will be established. The plan is to vaccinate 2.4 million by the end of February. 

While the French have shied away from vaccinodromes, in Massachusetts the focus is on opening these mass vaccination sites. Gillette Stadium in Foxborough is up and running, and Fenway Park in Boston is slated to open February 1. Governor Baker plans to have at least two more sites like this open in the state by the end of January. There are 150 smaller locations. 

Massachusetts is not following the new federal guidelines to vaccinate all those aged 65 and over in one phase. We will have to wait until the 75+ crowd have their shots before we can get ours. The plan — I think of it as a hope — is for March or April.

In the meantime, with the neon yellow student-made mask retired after service above and beyond the call of duty, I’ve taken to doubling up. In a pinch that might be contagious, two masks are better than one.
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