No. 25 ~ Somerville ~ February 14, 2021

In which we ponder masks, vaccines, and daylight

A Cold Common: We had a chance walk across the Boston Common while snow was falling on Tuesday. Actually this pond is in the Public Garden, but that name isn’t as much fun.

Did you notice that we’ve emerged from solar winter? That’s the quarter of the year when we have the least daylight — when the sun, exhausted after a short day of remote work, signs off early and leaves our screen in the dark. 

Solar winter ends during the first week of February. We notice the days getting longer, but wintry weather continues. That’s called seasonal lag, and we’ve had a taste of it here in Somerville where we’ve had to dig out from two snowstorms in the past week. Solar winter may be over, but underfoot the earth is still cold; at the coast, the ocean is still freezing. We don’t get to march into the next season just because the sun has improved its attitude. 

Massachusetts, where two vaccines were developed — Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — has lagged behind 35 other states in getting its residents vaccinated, even though new vaccination centers continue to open. The state’s website for making vaccine appointments has been such a flop that it prompted a 28-year-old software developer in Arlington to fix the problem. At home on maternity leave with her two-year-old and his baby brother, Olivia Adams had ready to launch in three weeks. It acts as a one-page clearing house for available appointments, listed by location — eliminating the wild goose chase experience people are having with the state site. 

State authorities have not yet endorsed Adams’s work, but they just responded to it by launching a new website on Friday. It offers a lot of the important information in a one-age format, just like Ms. Adams’s site does.  

These user experience problems — website developers say “UX” — are not limited to the vaccine website in Massachusetts. Independent software engineers have also stepped into the fray in California, New York, and Texas, launching third-party sites in a matter of weeks that are more user-friendly. Much more needs to be done, though, to make vaccine administration equitable and accessible. In Boston, a new vaccine center in the Black and Brown community of Roxbury made the news when the vast majority of people streaming in to get vaccinated were white, from the suburbs. This is happening in New York City as well. Massachusetts has finally launched a call center offering an alternative way to make vaccine appointments. And hope arrived on Wednesday when President Joe Biden announced the 13 members of his Health Equity Task Force. 

While Isabelle and I wait for our turn to be vaccinated, I’ve been watching the news about masks and vaccines in France and the U.S.

In France, children over the age of six have been attending classes full time since September. Of course, masks are required. In my No. 23 post on January 23, I wrote about how French authorities have come out against the use of cloth masks. Now the recommendation has become a regulation. Starting this past week, cloth masks are no longer allowed in classrooms. As virus variants spread across France, authorities are concerned about the lower filtration performance of some cloth masks, so they are insisting that teachers and students wear “category 1” masks, specifically surgical masks or FFP2 medical masks. News reports cited the difference in filtration as 70% for cloth vs 90% for surgical. 

But don’t throw your cloth masks out yet. In the U.S., worried about the more contagious new variants, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance this week that includes the option of wearing a cloth mask over a surgical mask to boost protection, assuming the cloth mask provides a tight fit.

Then there was the photo-op of Olivier Véran, France’s health minister, squeezing half-way out of his white long-sleeved shirt so he could get his first shot of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine. The vaccine was approved by the European Union last week, against a backdrop of mixed messages about the vaccine’s efficacy. While they wait for more trial data, France, Germany and Sweden are not recommending the AstraZeneca vaccine for those over 65 years old. Italy and Bulgaria have the cutoff at 55. Taking this into account, Véran has dedicated France’s first shipment of the vaccine to younger populations of health workers. This struck me as risky, in light of what’s happening in South Africa.

Authorities there, desperate to vaccinate their people, have nevertheless decided to condemn their shipment of one million AstraZeneca doses to a warehouse rather than put them in arms. The South Africans think there is not enough evidence — at least not yet — to show efficacy of the viral-vectored vaccine against the mutation variant called B.1.351, first detected in their country. 

But the mixed messaging doesn’t stop there. Earlier this month, health authorities in the United Kingdom, where the vaccine was developed, announced results of more research about allowing a 12-week delay between the two required doses. This delay seemed to be decided on the fly when vaccination started in Britain at the beginning of the year. Researchers now say the long delay is actually beneficial. The efficacy rate of the first dose after 12 weeks, researchers say, is better than after six. There is also strong evidence that the AstraZeneca vaccine reduces transmission, even after the first dose. 

And what about the efficacy issues the South Africans are worried about? Oxford researchers say they will be releasing results soon showing that their vaccine is comparable to others in providing protection against antibody-resistant variants, like B.1.351, which has already been detected in 32 countries.  

The AstraZeneca vaccine will probably not be approved in the U.S. before April. By then, I’m sure more light will be shed on its efficacy. As the days get longer, every effort should be made to make trust in vaccines stronger. In the U.S., about a quarter of the population is vaccine hesitant. In France, hesitancy has been polled as high at 58%.
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[Photos by JK unless otherwise noted.]