This week, the first Americans rolled up their sleeves and received a vaccine to protect them against the coronavirus.

It’s a stunning scientific achievement, led by the work of a married couple in Germany, researchers Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, the children of Turkish immigrants. In less than a year, the vaccine has moved from the lab at the couple’s company, BioNTech, to global distribution by Pfizer.

Many didn’t give heed to science over the course of this year, but all should stand in awe of what’s happening now. The work of Sahin and Tureci will save countless lives.

But we, the regular folks in America, have a chance to save lives as well.

It’s going to take months for the vaccine to roll out and be available to everyone. There are other vaccines in the pipeline as well, but even with those, it’s unlikely the timeline will move up much.

The first people protected will be frontline health-care workers and the residents and staff at long-term care facilities. Next will be people deemed essential workers, people with underlying medical conditions that put them at higher risk of death from COVID-19 and older adults.

For many, a vaccination won’t come until late spring or even early summer.

That means what we do between now and then matters. A lot.

Coronavirus cases are surging, the country surpassed 300,000 COVID-19 deaths and it’s the holiday season, a time of travel, parties and large family gatherings—all perfect opportunities for the virus to spread.

We’ve struggled as a nation to keep people healthy, obviously. The death toll continues to surpass grim milestones. ,Last Wednesday, the United States recorded its highest one-day total of coronavirus deaths: 3,124, more than the number of lives lost on 9/11, more than the number of American soldiers killed on D-Day.

What will likely go down as the greatest sin in this dark chapter in American history is the politicization of behavior dictated by science. It has never been easy, but the rules have been relatively simple: Wear a mask; stay distanced; reduce your exposure to only essential activities.

Many tried, but we collectively failed. The proof lies in intensive care units filled to capacity, and in the portable morgues brought in to handle the dead.

It’s possible a country with an inflated sense of entitlement and an irrational spirit of rugged individualism was doomed from the jump. But the reasons matter less than what we do moving forward.

Perhaps Americans need to ask themselves this question: If you had the chance to save a life, would you do it?

For most of us, the ones who aren’t doctors or nurses, firefighters or cops, that’s not an opportunity that comes along often, if ever. But it’s an opportunity we all have, right here and now. What we do in the coming weeks and months, how we behave and the choices we make, will determine how many more Americans die as the coronavirus vaccine gets distributed.

Will you wear a mask—properly, so it’s covering your mouth and nose—to protect others and to set an example? The mask is one of the best ways to slow the spread of the virus. We didn’t know that at first, but we now know it well.

When you put one on, even if you’re healthy and around people who are healthy, you’re making a difference by modeling good behavior. Mask-wearing should be the norm for now, and if your mask-wearing makes people who aren’t wearing masks feel self-conscious, then you’re doing a good thing.

Can you modify your holiday traditions and celebrations? Can you reach an agreement with family members that stresses the greater good and frames this as a one-year sacrifice? We’re close to wrestling this pandemic to the ground, but treating this holiday season as normal will set the country back.

Your family’s decisions can save lives. That is, in the truest sense of the word, a gift.

What better way to capture the spirit of the holidays than to do something that helps others. What better way to unite as a family than to say: “We’re going to do the right thing, because people out there are suffering. We’re going to change how we do things, just for this year, to help make the world a better place.”

People like Sahin and Tureci, and all the doctors and researchers who have unraveled the mystery of this virus and put us on a path toward health and normalcy, will save lives.

We can too.


Rex Huppke is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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