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Our family expects to gather for Christmas just as we did for Thanksgiving — in two states, three residences and with six electronic devices.

No hugs, no board games, no shared meals, but we can see each other, laugh together and reminisce.

We gathered on Zoom at Thanksgiving, old hat for six of the eight of us. It was of course, a first for us grandparents. Well, almost. I had previously participated in a Zoom book club discussion, although not without some hiccups. It took me about half the meeting to get my name with my picture and longer to discover how to “raise my hand” to comment.

Like many, but certainly not all of our age, we have not engaged with all the electronic advantages.

Likewise, but as all ages, we are not fond of masks, fogged glasses, seemingly endless hand washing, suspended activities and, of course, restrictions on family gatherings.

Yet we have so many more possibilities than was true for people during the influenza pandemic of 1918. We can “gather,” even if it is electronically or, now probably less often, by phone. Email is almost instantaneous, no stamps required. We have multiple options for sending gifts.

Victims of the this virus now have a more likely recovery with new treatments, though there are still the unknowns of long-term effects.

Finally, of course, the promise of vaccines, already in use in the United Kingdom and at the time this was written late last week, approved for distribution and use in this country.

Of course, we were already learning about possible vaccine side effects and there remain questions about the duration of protection. Additionally, there are major concerns about distribution, priorities, staffing and equipment for administering the vaccines. And, oh, yes, acceptance by various groups of the public.

Then I read of another wrinkle.

While trials indicated the first likely vaccine is better than 90% effective, it won’t just stop illnesses and deaths in their tracks. In fact, warned David Leonhardt of the New York Times in several articles last week, vaccines will be less effective in preventing both illness and death in a population where the coronavirus is raging. And it is just that in this country at present.

He compared the vaccine to a fire hose; those at about 95% effective appear to be powerful hoses. Yet you can’t put out a raging fire with a hose, he suggests.

Leonhardt referred to a paper written by four medical experts, including Dr. Rochelle Walensky, President-elect Joe Biden’s choice to run the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Their research revealed that without preventive measures as those masks that frustrate us, social distancing as well as rapid testing, the 95% effectiveness doesn’t have an advantage over a 50% effectiveness in a population with a lower infection rate.


At Leonhardt’s request, the study authors translated their findings into terms we nonscientists can understand.

“At the current level of infection in the U.S. [about 200,000 confirmed new infections per day] a vaccine that is 95 percent effective ... would still leave a terrible toll in the six months after it was introduced. Almost 10 million or so Americans would contract the virus and more than 160,000 would die.”

On the other hand, a vaccine 50% effective and an infection rate, the level in the country in early September of about 35,000 new daily cases, “the death toll in the next six months would be kept to about 60,000.”

Their findings demonstrate that health officials, in addition to investing in vaccine production, distribution and promoting public confidence in vaccines, must “encourage continued adherence to other mitigation approaches even after a vaccine becomes available.”

That suggests that it is unlikely we will put away masks and soap or sanitizers any time soon. We likely will have more of the not-so-delightful nose swabs for testing. Contacts with far-off friends and families, even book clubs and other gatherings likely will remain electronic.

Despite that, we can find ways to celebrate the season.

Best wishes for the holidays.

Contact writer Evadna Bartlett at