We're looking at two simultaneous narratives when it comes to the pandemic. The Delta variant is driving up COVID-19 hospitalizations in the mountain West, which is a worrying sign as we head into winter. On the other hand, breakthrough treatments could soon be game changers.
Last Thursday, drug maker Pfizer went public with preliminary results for its experimental antiviral pill for COVID-19.
"Within three days of the symptoms, you have now 89% protection from disease leading to hospitalization with our medicines, and the data indicate 100% protection from death," Pfizer's Dr. Mikael Dolsten said.
Add to that, in the U.S., 28 million kids ages 5 to 11 are now eligible for Pfizer's vaccine.
"By the end of the day today we estimate that over 900,000 kids ages five through 11 will have already gotten their first shot," White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeffrey Zients said Wednesday.
Also this week, Pfizer asked for federal authorization to give its booster shot to any adult.
Even with all these promising developments against a disease that has now killed, worldwide, more than 5 million people, we're continuing to see warnings about COVID and protests against vaccine mandates and restrictions from New Zealand to Los Angeles. So what's the truth? Are we finally turning the corner on a dark and divisive era?
"I think when we stop having to worry about having access to medical care on a consistent basis, we don't have to worry about our hospitals getting overrun," UC Health's Dr. Michelle Barron said, "I think that's going to be the key for a lot of us, at least in the medical community, how we're viewing it, that and death rates, obviously as well."
The pill is not approved yet, but it's set to change our reality. In trials of those who got the pill, fewer than 1% needed to be hospitalized and no one died. None of these people were vaccinated. The study was halted based on the strength of the results.
Approval of the new drug could take months. Merck, which announced preliminary results last month showing its drug cut hospitalizations and deaths by half, is awaiting FDA emergency use authorization for older and other high-risk adults. It's already approved in the U.K.
And here's the big "but": Both the Pfizer and Merck pills, to be effective, need to be taken during an early, narrow window after symptoms appear — about three days. Some people, at this phase, might not realize they have COVID-19.
"I think [the pill] is a huge phenomenon that is definitely going to change some of the course of what's happened," Barron said. "The key, obviously, will be having access to the pill, and that will require still testing and recognition that individuals have the actual illness."
So, when will the day come when we're not required to wear masks on an airplane, when our old normal is renewed? Experts are hesitant to predict.
"If we're in that last mile, we still have to get to that finish line and it takes a lot of energy and effort to get that last mile," Barron said. "It's probably the most painful mile of the whole race because you can see how close you are, but you're not actually at the finish line."
A point of concern for public health officials is polling that shows people say they're less likely to get vaccinated if a pill is an option for them if they get sick, and that, they say, could put the finish line further out on the horizon.