In the thick of the worst stretch so far of the COVID-19 pandemic, rays of hope shoot through the thick gloom.

A vaccine being tested appears to be 90% effective at preventing the disease. Although final steps in the process and distribution are still months or more away, the progress is a dose of good news.

Another positive development is that President-elect Joe Biden already has assembled a reputable COVID-19 task force, including nationally respected Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. The group of reputable medical experts will work together on a national strategy to combat the disease.

Mankato is fully aware of how important medical expertise is in times of a public health crisis. Osterholm, an epidemiologist, headed up the state team of experts who identified and managed the bacterial meningitis outbreak that slammed our community in 1995. His recognition of the disease behaving in unprecedented ways and the mass vaccination clinics for those at risk no doubt saved many lives here.

The country has been suffering from a patchwork of different restrictions and mixed messages about COVID-19 since March. Science has repeatedly been ignored by national and state leaders, and the White House task force was pushed into a storage closet because facts interfered with President Donald Trump’s campaign claims that the virus was rounding the corner. Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the most respected infectious disease experts in the world, has steadfastly stuck to delivering honest information to the public and has been ridiculed by the president.

Knowing that Biden’s first goal is to develop a national strategy to combat the extremely contagious virus is comforting as we have watched in horror as neighboring states refuse to implement mask mandates or restrict gatherings of any size — both measures that are proven to significantly affect risk of spreading the virus.

The excuse of “letting the people decide what’s right” made by those state leaders has become a death sentence for many. And it’s ironic that COVID-19 victims from those border state communities sometimes end up in Minnesota’s top-notch medical facilities — when there’s room.

Among the new national task force’s duties will be to make sure people of color, who have been disproportionately struck by the virus, are assured access to vaccines and other health care. This is a key component to the blueprint as the country takes steps to change its patterns of inequity. One of the co-chairs is Marcella Nunez-Smith, a Yale University associated professor and associate dean whose research focuses on promoting health care equality for marginalized populations.

Although the task force won’t officially be able to put any plan into action until after Jan. 20, the experts’ voices can until then be part of the chorus of sound, scientific medical advice that people need to pay attention to as hospital beds become more scarce and the spread picks up pace as predicted.

The coronavirus doesn’t care about your political leanings and neither do medical experts who are trying to slow down the spread by emphasizing the importance of mask-wearing, social distancing and testing. Vaccine distribution is on the horizon, but until it reaches us, the public needs to do what it can to protect one another.

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