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A COVID-19 holiday: Closing the Year Together

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This column was originally published in the Houston Medical Journal on Dec. 21, 2020.

Almost a year ago, COVID-19 was a deadly disease at arm’s length from the United States – an issue overseas we watched and hoped would stay boxed in and contained. We expected limited impact on health and human life. Today, COVID-19 is our central focus as we head into the holidays. In 2020, we faced shortages of staff, testing supplies and personal protective equipment. We fought desperately for needed federal funding and resources. And our health care workers endured extreme burnout and exhaustion.

Hospitals sustained a strong pace since activating their pandemic plans months ago. Nurses, janitorial staff, physicians, laboratory technicians, specialists, food service workers and countless others dutifully soldier on, working inside hospitals every day to take care of families, friends and neighbors hospitalized with this disease. They are falling ill themselves. And they are worried about the health and safety of their own families. Yet, they keep moving forward, fighting for their patients.

And now, with therapeutics flowing and vaccines coming down the pipeline, there is real reason to be optimistic. Health care professionals, lawmakers and other experts quickly built Texas’ vaccine allocation plan with thought and care. Initial challenges included storage capability of 70 degrees below zero for a minimum of 975 doses. Health care providers working with high-risk patients have first access to initial rounds of the COVID-19 vaccine, as they should. Protecting health care workers is essential to ensure a healthy workforce that is physically able to care for those who become acutely ill.

Pushing doses broadly to larger hospitals at the outset, while not perfect, allows Texas to quickly vaccinate thousands of frontline health care workers immediately, and then move quickly to fill in other pockets of the state as supplies become more plentiful. Storage of these cold vaccines and inclusion of new vaccines that don’t require such strict challenges will allow both rural and other health care providers to participate. There is hope as additional vaccines move toward the finish line and supplies become more available.

With a solid plan, an imminent vaccine and a wider array of treatment protocols, we can start to see a light at the end of the tunnel. If nothing else, the pandemic has clearly demonstrated that the health care industry and the individuals that support it are exponentially stronger when we work together. Together, we pushed for the resources health care workers need to protect themselves and their families while they work on the frontlines. We carefully developed plans to allocate therapeutics and vaccines. And Texas continues to flex resources and trigger additional staffing, so people get the care they need.

As we head into the holidays, public prevention messaging must remain strong even while the positive and powerful force of a vaccine is before us. We must continue to protect those who protect us and remind the public that they too are on the “frontlines” of this pandemic. Wearing masks, social distancing, practicing good hand hygiene and avoiding large gatherings are key to ensure a joyous holiday season. Now is not the time to let our guards down. Now is the time to encourage our families, friends, neighbors and patients to persevere for just a little bit longer.

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