After months of saying that we needed to be vigilant to suppress the spread of coronavirus until a vaccine could be developed, it’s here.

Almost anyway. The Pfizer vaccine has been given Food and Drug Administration approval and the first doses could be getting into arms in Maine in just a few days.

How much feel-good news can you take? Don’t worry, we won’t overload you – it’s still 2020 for another two weeks.

We all have to be extra vigilant now, when case numbers are surging, and we will have to remain vigilant for many months.

First of all, there isn’t enough of the vaccine expected to arrive to make it through the first round of high-priority Mainers: frontline health care workers, first responders and senior citizens living in congregate settings.

And then the vaccine requires two doses to work, with the doses administered two weeks apart. People who have had the first shot can still get sick for two weeks after the second dose, so they will have to wear a mask and take the other steps they are taking now.

There is some concern that the vaccine won’t keep you from spreading the virus to others even as it protects you from getting sick.

That means that we are going to be wearing masks, standing 6 feet apart and avoiding crowded indoor spaces for months and months. As the ever-quotable Dr. Nirav Shah of the Maine Center for Disease Control says, there is no switch we can flip that will bring us back to normal. It’s going to be a gradual process.

We have learned a lot about how this virus spreads in the last nine months.

Last April, a lot of Mainers thought it was an urban disease that would not affect them. But we have seen that where you live has much less to do with the spread of COVID than what you do.

Some of the biggest outbreaks so far, like the Millinocket wedding in August or at the Brooks Pentecostal Church in Waldo County, have happened in rural areas.

We are still hearing complaints that Gov. Janet Mills has “overreached her authority” by issuing emergency public health orders. Like somehow, the virus would just pass over us if there weren’t all these rules. It’s dangerous nonsense.

During the summer some Mainers compared Mills’ prudent policies unfavorably to those of South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who has determined that public health should be a matter of personal choice.

But now the two rural states show what a difference policy makes. With a little more than half of Maine’s population, South Dakota has had nearly five times as many COVID deaths, 1,177 to 242.

Under Noem’s management, South Dakota leads the nation with a death rate of 133 per 100,000 of population. By the same measure, Maine’s death rate is 18.

There is no special quality that makes someone in Maine less likely to get sick and die of this disease than someone who lives in South Dakota. If Mills had listened to those who wanted her to be more like Noem, Mainers would be dying at the same rate as South Dakotans.

There is no way around these numbers. COVID is bad and getting worse.

Maine didn’t have a day with more than 100 new cases until Oct. 30. By mid November we were averaging nearly 200 new cases a day, and now it’s more than 300.

Because our hospitals have not been overloaded until now, Mainers with COVID are surviving at a slightly higher rate than the national average. But the risk is still too high: If I told you that there was a 1.5 percent chance that a vicious tiger was in your basement, wouldn’t you think twice about going downstairs?

We may be close to the end of this pandemic the way marathoners are close to the end when they cross the 25-mile mark.

But any runner will tell you that when you still have a mile to run, you are nowhere near the end.

The only way to keep the hospitals from becoming overwhelmed is to keep the infection rate down, and the only way to do that until the vaccines are widely distributed is to keep doing the things that we have been doing since last spring.

Wear a mask. Keep your distance. Stay out of crowded indoor spaces. Wash your hands.

We may all be tired of hearing it, but the message is still the same: We’ve got to stay vigilant.


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