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The Tragic Anniversary of COVID-19

It is hard to believe it was just a year ago when all of this started. And now to realize that after everything that we have gone through we are still not near the end of the journey.

One year ago I had just started having conversations with knowledgeable colleagues about the threat of this new potentially fatal virus. It was the beginning with cases of a new viral illness reported out of China, a killer virus that was still very much a theoretical threat of what could happen here in the United States. 

The back-of-the-envelope COVID-19 death projections we calculated during those early conversations were chilling: with a fatality rate of 2-3%, and a requirement of about 80% of the population infected before we reached some level of systemic “immunity,” we were talking about numbers in the range of 1.5-2 million. It was frightening, and we were all just holding our collective breath while at the same time trying to send the message to everyone—but particularly those with cancer and other chronic diseases—that they needed to take the precautions that are now achingly familiar to all of us: wash your hands, keep your hands away from your face, socially distance. And later, the addition of masks to protect you from spreading the virus to others and still later the addition of masks to protect you from the virus lurking undetected in others.

The “good news”—which is not good in any way shape or form—was that the death estimates were overstated. “Only” 524,000 deaths in the past year, starting from zero in February and March 2020. Compare that to cancer, where the estimate was for 606,520 deaths in 2020. And now, the rate of deaths from COVID-19 are outstripping the cancer death rate by far. The personal devastation of those deaths to families, friends, colleagues, communities and our nation is incalculable

And how things have changed and matured over the past year, some for the better and some not. We shut down much of our lives, and now we see some communities and states taking risks by “opening up” without limits in the face of a continuing (and perhaps accelerating) grave threat. We talked back then about the humanity of man to fellow man, only to learn that humanity had its limits and politics trumped all. 

Communities and states have been devastated by this virus while some continue to believe it is a hoax. We heard about nostrums without evidence of benefit that still have credence in some quarters. And every day new nostrums appear, and on other days they are shown ineffective (think ivermectin as the most recent example). Yet we still cling to the vision of a magic cure, a vitamin, an herb, a talisman of some sort that will magically wisk the virus into oblivion. 

More often than not, the “miracles” turn out to be false hope. Bleach is bleach and not a cure for human COVID infection. Sticking ultraviolet tubes down the lungs of infected patients was promoted as a treatment, and now sits on the trash heap of similarly untenable ideas. 

However miracles did occur: vaccines were developed, tested and distributed with a pace never before seen, to the benefit of some but unequally for all. Treatments were documented to have effectiveness for some. Our ability to save lives from COVID-19 has improved. The search continues for more effective treatments for all. 

Our political leaders in some cases led, too often failed, and collectively were never able to mute the megaphones of ignorance. 

We are left to ask how much more successful could we have been, how many lives could have been saved, how much more quickly we could have gotten this under some degree of control if sanity, consistency and commitment prevailed?  

We were close, oh so close, last May and June. “Containment” dates were literally right around the corner, but leadership failed to lead, the gates were opened, and the sacrifices of months for naught. We paid the price in hundreds of thousands of deaths, countless more illnesses—many with long term consequences—and untold numbers of hospitalizations that perhaps didn’t have to happen. 

Yet there has been a detectable shift in the message over the past several months. The rancor has dissipated to some degree. The hospitalizations, cases (and soon deaths) have declined, and people are venturing out once again. The loud voices of bombast and ignorance have been replaced with a more measured, steady, committed  and sensible conversation about acknowledging problems, getting them solved and getting life back on pace.

However danger still lurks: we are not done with this pandemic. Anyone who thinks so is disrespectful of the power of nature and especially the power of this virus. 

We are still destined to see illness, and there is a very tight race underway to get as many people vaccinated as possible. And even if we get vaccines distributed to everyone, there is still the risk of the virus being smarter than we are, of developing variants where lives can still be impacted, where death is still a present threat.

We cannot, and should not, let our guard down. We know common sense ways to stay safe without being draconian. We need to pay respect to our foe, for to underestimate this virus is to place our society and ourselves once again at risk. 

It is too early to declare success. It is too early to become complacent. It is way too early for victory. It is never too early to be safe and to stay safe, and to take on the safety of our families and our communities as a duty we owe to each other.

Pray for this next year to be a better year, for our humanity to reappear and serve as a means of healing our communities and our nation. We cannot fail to do better.