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COVID-19 as a new year begins — looking back, moving ahead

An anniversary has just occurred. In mid-December 2019 people in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China started falling ill, their main symptoms being shortness of breath and fever. On December 31 China notified the World Health Organization (WHO) of these mysterious pneumonia cases. Nine days later the WHO announced that the cause was a previously unknown coronavirus. The first case outside China was reported on January 13 and just ten days afterward, the first case in the United States. When the WHO declared the outbreak a pandemic on March 11, nearly 120,000 people in 114 countries had become infected and 4,000 had died.

What a long way we’ve come since then. And it feels long. We’ve endured lockdowns, product shortages, business closures, job losses, sporting and cultural event cancellations, and online schooling. We have applied sanitizer to ourselves and frequently touched surfaces, adopted elbow bumps in lieu of handshakes, and learned to estimate being six feet away from each other. We started using delivery services for groceries and ordering as much as possible online. We postponed dental and medical appointments or met with healthcare providers via telemedicine. We learned to wear face masks to reduce infection risk for ourselves and those around us. We experienced the inconvenience of isolation if we developed symptoms and the pain of separation when our loved ones were hospitalized and we couldn’t comfort them with our presence.

We can’t seem to get away from the endless clamor of information and opinion from television, newspapers, magazines, and social media. “This is getting old,” we complain to ourselves, and to anyone who will listen. Life is not back to normal.

It’s especially hard because we are social creatures who thrive on togetherness, sharing, and touch. As Fannie Lou Hamer said in 1964, we are sick and tired of being sick and tired.

The SARS CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 may be the most intensively studied virus in history. In just two years we have learned how the virus spreads (primarily through the air), how it infects people, and what happens to them when it does. We know that measures such as wearing high-quality, close-fitting masks, handwashing, social distancing, and avoiding crowded indoor spaces help to reduce the spread. Thanks to expedited but thorough clinical trials the FDA was able to grant emergency use authorizations for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines just a year after the virus first appeared. These vaccines have proven highly effective at preventing severe disease, hospitalizations, and death.

We know that vaccination is our best, though not a perfect, defense against serious illness. We know that children as young as five can be safely vaccinated. In December the FDA granted emergency use authorization to new drugs from Pfizer and Merck to treat mild to moderate COVID-19. We have made remarkable progress.

Another anniversary is coming soon. In January 2021 three friends, concerned by the Thanksgiving-to-New Year’s surge in cases locally, the apparent lack of information among members of the public, and the seemingly inadequate response to the pandemic at many levels, saw a great need for clear, consistent, accurate messaging about COVID. They recruited a group of equally concerned people with diverse experience, knowledge, and skills, forming the team you know from these articles as Let’s end COVID! Sadly, we are observing our first anniversary, not celebrating it. We are as eager as anyone to put this pandemic and all its disruptions and sorrows behind us.

For a time, the end seemed to be in sight. If the vaccines stayed effective, if enough people got them, we could stop the pandemic in its tracks. Unfortunately, for many reasons, not enough people got vaccinated. This gave the virus time to mutate, leading to a big surge in infections from the more easily transmitted delta variant. We learned that immunity from vaccinations does wane with time, so boosters were made available to restore our protection. The boosters work but not enough people have gotten them. Now we have a new variant, omicron, and it is much more easily transmitted than delta. Omicron may cause less severe disease than earlier versions of the virus – we can’t be sure yet – but it’s spreading like wildfire among the unvaccinated.

As we enter the pandemic’s third year, we look back with sadness at the disruptions and losses we have suffered but also with satisfaction for the incredible progress we have made. We look ahead, with fear that this terrible virus may yet outwit us, but also with enormous hope that we will keep learning, keep developing new and better vaccines and treatments, and come together to win this fight. Let’s end COVID is with you all the way, but if we are to celebrate, not just observe, our second anniversary in January 2023, we need your help.

Michael Heyd, a retired medical librarian from Fairfield Township who spent more than forty years searching the literature for professional hospital staff, is a member of Let’s end COVID!, a group of concerned people in Northcentral PA working to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic through education, outreach and mitigation.

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