Just six months ago, the coronavirus pandemic changed everything. One of the last things Mainers did before COVID hit here was to go to the polls in surprising numbers to vote on March 3, Super Tuesday.

One draw was the state’s first presidential primary in 20 years, replacing the unpopular caucus system. The other was a people’s veto vote in which Mainers overwhelmingly upheld a new law that will end non-medical exemptions from mandatory immunizations. The vote put the law back on track, giving individuals and families until September 2021 to catch up on their vaccines if they want to send a child to school or work in a health care setting.

That deadline still looms, even though the global pandemic has disrupted almost every other aspect of our lives. So it’s not surprising that Maine still has one of the nation’s highest opt-out rates in the nation during the last school year, with 5.6 percent of Maine parents claiming religious or philosophical objections to vaccinations. The coronavirus has been the No. 1 focus of public health information from the state, but students who don’t qualify for a medical exemption will need to be vaccinated to re-enter school.

The pandemic has made life harder for families. Parents have had to juggle distance learning responsibilities with work. Medical offices were not scheduling non-emergency appointments for months and they are now working through a backlog.

Not all the news is bad, however. As a result of social distancing measures over the last six months, chickenpox and whooping cough cases are down dramatically. Schools were closed for most of the spring to prevent the spread of coronavirus, and that also stopped the spread of other diseases. The chicken ox and whooping cough numbers should convince any remaining skeptics that public health protocols work.

But the fight against these diseases should also prepare us how to respond when a COVID vaccine becomes available. Some people will not be able to be vaccinated because they have suppressed immune systems, which puts them at risk if a virus is being passed around. Not all vaccines are 100 percent effective, giving infections an opportunity to take hold. As with chickenpox and whooping cough, we will need to have nearly universal adoption once a COVID vaccine is distributed to bring every community’s immunity up to a level at which we will be able to return to the kinds of activities that made up our ordinary lives just a few months ago.

Nationally, COVID has already taken more than 200,000 lives, and many experts project more severe outbreaks in the fall and winter when people engage in more indoor activities. Like chickenpox and the other, more familiar diseases, COVID won’t disappear on its own.

Keeping people safe requires a coordinated approach in which all of us follow public health guidance to the best of our abilities. That means, when we can, getting vaccinated.


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