We had great news these last few weeks concerning the multiple COVID-19 vaccines and improved therapeutic treatments. We should congratulate the scientists and health care experts who worked night and day to make these possible. Their research, dedication and hard work will save lives, and they certainly deserve our thanks.

Even with the great news, I caution you to temper the celebrations as we move to another phase of this pandemic. This is not quite over, and we must brace for the ultimate COVID-19 peak between now and our immunizations. Now is not the time to let our guard down.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projects COVID-19 deaths to be as high as 15,000 per week by Dec. 15. This means we still must go through the worst of what the pandemic has to offer. Fortunately, our local hospitals and Kern County Public Health Services Department are well prepared to manage a local surge and have gained significant knowledge and skills since the beginning of this virus. But each of us must also take personal responsibility to be well practiced in the steps we need to take to protect our families and ourselves. Let’s make sure we do what it takes to stay safe this holiday season.

For me, this pandemic has hit home. It was only recently that I began hearing of people in my network of family and friends contracting COVID-19. Unfortunately, this included my son’s family, which has been ravaged by the virus with his entire household falling ill, including his 1-year-old daughter. It has been painful hearing the hurt in his voice as he talks about having elderly in-laws, a wife, cousins and a daughter who have all been confronted with the invisible killer. In the interest of protecting his privacy, I will only say that my son and his wife took all precautions to protect themselves and their loved ones, but it only took one individual who violated his bubble. This one encounter introduced COVID-19 to his family and introduced a new fear of what might happen next.

Local contact tracers have been working diligently to provide advice, detection and direction to families like ours and the whole experience has brought to light the desperate need for more contact tracing and a vaccine.

Based on my family’s experiences and understanding of how easily COVID-19 can spread, I believe we are in for an extremely tough winter. The virus is still here, and it spreads easily. With the holiday season upon us, we are particularly vulnerable with each prospect of family gatherings. So, now more than ever, it is important for our families, friends and colleagues to protect themselves.

The insidious nature of COVID-19 means we must improve our understanding and competence to combat this virus. Bakersfield College is providing an opportunity to strengthen your knowledge and change the progression of this virus while we wait for a vaccine.

Last week, BC gained approval for a new Infectious Disease Contact Tracing course which is available at no cost for students and the community. This training in COVID-19 and infectious diseases will provide the skills needed for organizations to gain a deeper understanding of this pandemic and implement practical applications to prevent the further spread of this virus. Attendees will also gain awareness of state protocols and necessary actions after testing positive. It will provide all students and lifelong learners with much needed expertise and understanding to protect us during this critical gap to our receiving immunizations.

I am proud of my colleagues at Bakersfield College for making this initiative come to life. This is your community college in action and this opportunity gives us a much-needed boost to improve our personal ability to protect our community and those we love.

If you are interested in joining, please contact (661) 395-4421 or visit the virtual Student Information Desk at www.bakersfieldcollege.edu. Let them know you wish to join PBHS-B99NC – Infectious Disease Contact Tracing, because we really are all in this together.

Richard McCrow is the dean of instruction at Bakersfield College, a former director of the Bakersfield College Delano campus and a 30-year Navy veteran.