Vaccines and variants: Will we know it's Christmas time this year?

This time last year the first Covid vaccine was administered and the nation breathed a sigh of relief. 365 days later we are still facing restrictions and uncertainty.
Vaccines and variants: Will we know it's Christmas time this year?

One year ago this week on December 8, 2020, the first Covid-19 vaccine was given and as a nurse jabbed 90-year-old Fermanagh woman Margaret Keenan, we all heaved a sigh of relief. Photo: Jacob King/PA Wire

It is starting to feel a lot like Christmas but which Christmas is it going to be? When we shout out ‘it’s behind you’ does it mean the pandemic is going away or is it creeping up on us again?

So far the signs, like the government’s messaging, are mixed.

We have vaccines, hurray, but there is a new variant, boo. The vaccines work against severe disease and death, hurray, but transmission is happening in very high numbers, boo. The pantos are open, hurray, but with only 50% capacity, boo.

It can be hard to know what mood to be in, with a lot of people just confused and irritated. It was not meant to be like this.

One year ago this week on December 8, 2020, the first Covid-19 vaccine was given and as a nurse jabbed 90-year-old Fermanagh woman Margaret Keenan, we all heaved a sigh of relief.

We were then around a year into the pandemic depending on when you take as a starting-point, but we felt it was nearly over. The beginning of the end we thought, and we were told. “A ray of hope”, I wrote giddily in this newspaper.

It seemed a real Christmas miracle, and in many ways it was. Never before have safe vaccines against such a deadly disease been created, tested, developed and delivered in such a short time. Yet within weeks Ireland was plunged back into lockdown even as the vaccines rolled out.

So where are we this December?

The vaccines are still on the stage, and thankfully the most vulnerable among us, who this time last year dared not venture outside the door, are now protected.

Who could forget January when dozens died daily from this deadly virus, reaching 318 deaths in just one week. Staff in nursing homes and hospitals, families in the community battled to keep people safe but they had very little to offer other than shut your door.

Now we instead see the number of new infections among older people or people with underlying health conditions dropping every week as they are vaccinated and boosted. In contrast, the American Centres for Disease Control and Prevention found unvaccinated Americans have died at 11 times the rate of those fully vaccinated since the Delta variant joined us.

In the last year we have learned to rely more on ventilation and masking, gotten used to carrying sanitiser and moisturiser so the skin doesn’t come off our hands. Improvements to the vaccines are already happening with news this week that three shots of the Pfizer vaccine will protect against Omicron.

There is new medication from Merck and others for Covid-19 patients, more understanding of how everyday drugs like tocilizumab can fight the virus. Although at the same time we have had to learn to accept variants and the risk of spreading the virus even as vaccinated people.

This in particular was a tough one to take, however not unprecedented. Anyone vaccinated against mumps can still catch the disease but a very mild version for example.

Behind the scenes last December too, even before the Alpha variant hit, it wasn’t all glitz. Remember the county lockdowns, the dreaded 5km limits, take-away pints, the shuttered shops and endless walks?

Airports and train stations are open now, sure we have to wear masks but that seems a small price to pay. The same with masks in schools; the buildings are open and kids are with their friends, long may it last say frazzled parents.

We can hope, unlike last Christmas, many of us will not be alone. Migrants here never could have predicted spending months on this little island unable to fly home, and the same for broken-hearted Irish people in Australia, Thailand or anywhere you care to name.

Spare a small thought too for culchies who were trapped in Dublin; the M8 turnoff on the road to Cork never seemed so faraway after being told I could not travel it to see my parents.

Of course having choices makes some things trickier. Who will tell Cousin Johnny vaccines do not really give you 5G powers? Who will tell Auntie Roisin close the windows every now and then?

However while the stars of the show – nurses and doctors, scientists, community volunteers, teachers, delivery crews - take centre-stage, there are others the spotlight seems to have left behind.

Mary Coughlan has been a powerful eloquent voice for the arts, and listening to her talk about retirement this week was a sombre reminder that many are suffering.

Yes there is a pandemic with high risks from congregating but in the last year we have learned to manage that risk to share the passion of sport outdoors, and are failing to do the same for music and smaller sports.

Bereaved families too stand silently in the wings, people who this time last year were preparing for the holidays but now will mark January with anniversary masses and ceremonies.

We do not know what the next few weeks hold but we do know many things are different now. The trick will be finding a way to make this Christmas a better time for everyone.

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