Panel: Trust in vaccines, focus on mental health needed as we move forward with Covid

COVID-19 isn’t going away, but our fears can if we learn to trust that the vaccines are hard at work on our behalf. That was the main message from Dr. Monica Ghandi, one of the world’s leading experts on the disease, who spoke to an audience gathered for a community conversation Monday evening at the Palm Springs Cultural Center.

Dr. Ghandi was among eight panelists gathered for a community conversation — titled “Covid: What’s Next?” — organized by The Post and The Cultural Center. The event was the first of what organizers hope will be many similar gatherings. It included members of the hospitality and tourism industry, medical professionals, a teacher, and journalists.

“I think we’ve undersold how well the vaccines work,” Dr. Ghandi said in response to an audience question about why wearing masks is no longer required. “The vaccine works extremely well. It brought the death rate down in the 50 and older population to one in a million.”

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As the world moves forward and the pandemic turns endemic, she said fears of returning to pre-pandemic activities are unjustified. For now, she said, removing our masks may be the best way to push past that fear and show others it’s acceptable to trust the science.

Still, she added, it’s easy to see why we’re afraid. “It’s invisible to see the vaccines working,” Dr. Ghandi said, “but masks are visible.”

There’s very little virus in circulation in the highly-vaccinated Palm Springs area, said Dr. Les Zendle, who serves on the Desert Healthcare District and Foundation Board of Directors. That fact was backed up by Jimmy Boegle, the publisher of The Coachella Valley Independent, who has regularly reported on levels of the disease in the city’s wastewater.

The latest report, issued Monday and reported by The Independent, shows an average of 65,688 copies of the virus per liter of wastewater. That’s about one percent of the levels we saw in early to mid-January. 

Still, many on the panel advised a cautiously optimistic approach is best.

“Four months ago, we had not even heard of the Omicron variant. Then we went to record numbers of Covid — although deaths weren’t as bad,” Boegle said. “Now we’re having the lowest number of cases we’ve had since the pandemic began. So what’s happening two months from now? We don’t know. That’s how quickly things are moving.”

As we move forward with our lives and learn to live with Covid, panel members stressed mental health must become a priority. That’s especially critical for children, said Nichi Avina, a Cielo Vista Charter School teacher and 2022 California Teacher of the Year, and Dr. Jill Gover, a clinical psychologist and director of behavioral health at DAP Health.

“We’re going through an unprecedented mental health crisis in this country,” Dr. Gover said. “That’s especially true for youth. Developmentally it wasn’t appropriate for them to be isolated when they needed their peers. It’s not healthy for anyone, but it impacted youth in serious ways.

“More than 160,000 young people lost caregivers. That’s real trauma, and it causes them to act out in their behavior. They have so much unprocessed and unresolved grief.”

Aside from the availability of mental health services, boosters will also be an essential part of our future, Dr. Ghandi said, adding that she doesn’t foresee us going through anything with Covid that we’ve experienced the past two years again. That’s especially true as more people around the planet receive vaccinations.

“Will we have a variant that sets us backward?” she asked. “We may, but we can avoid going into lockdowns. About 50% of the planet has seen Omicron. If you’ve gotten the vaccine, now you have immunity if another variant comes up. Then our next booster will get us immune to the next variant.

“Eventually, we’ll get the vaccine for the whole virus. We’ll never go back to that phase of the pandemic, but we have to be vigilant.”

Reporter Kendall Balchan and editor Mark Talkington contributed to this report.

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