Bearing Witness to the Pandemic December 2020

Week of December 1-6, 2020

The 10th month of the pandemic in the US sees another million confirmed cases, this time in only 5 days. The total infections are now over 14.6 million. We are adding nearly 200,000 new cases every day with a record of 226,000 set this past week. The death count surpasses 280,000 with an average of 2,000 per day. One day this week saw more than 3,000 new fatalities recorded, nearly as many as those who died in another avoidable tragedy, the 9/11 attacks.

Total hospitalizations are rising steadily above 100,000 which is more than double a month ago. More hospitals are overflowing and expanding their emergency rooms and ICUs into other floors or buildings as well as parking garages and tents.  Several cities, regions, and states are now being put into a stay-at-home lockdown, not seen since the Spring, when community spread was not as bad. And the surge from Thanksgiving gatherings and travel is said to still not be here.

While the crisis takes 2,000 lives a day, President Trump remains busy playing golf, claiming he won, contesting the election as being rigged, filing lawsuits, tweeting lies, and disparaging those who don’t participate in his subversive coup against American democracy. In contrast, President-elect Biden continues to build out members of his cabinet and COVID-19 advisory team. He called on all Americans to wear a mask his first hundred days of office as an act of patriotic duty; something so simple yet Trump refused to do. It was only this week, after 280,000 deaths, that Trump’s CDC recommended that all people wear a mask when indoors.

States are busy preparing their vaccine distribution plans. Just like testing, there is no national strategy or plan. So 50 states are scrambling to each make up their own plan with a maze of scientific, medical, and ethical decisions as to who will get it first. How will this work out?

Can we trust states to get it right, especially Republican-led states that have mostly ignored recommendations to keep their populations safe? In Missouri, Republican Governor Mike Parson still refuses to mandate mask wearing or close schools despite positive test rates above 20% and full hospitals. Parson says those decisions should be made by local counties and cities who know what’s right for their communities. All the while his Republican state legislators, including those who claim masks don’t work, are writing legislation to keep local governments from enforcing their own COVID public health emergency restrictions. The stench of hypocrisy is overwhelming, but we Missourians have become use to it.

Internationally, Britain is the first country to approve and start administering the Pfizer vaccine to its population. The FDA has yet to approve it in an emergency use authorization for the US. Trump blames the FDA for his election loss, but then says he didn’t actually lose. The manufacturer has said it hopes to supply over 1 billion doses in 2021.

More studies show how different segments of the population are suffering and dying disproportionately. The elderly who are institutionalized account for more than 100,000 deaths, nearly one in three. People in lower income neighborhoods and minimum wage jobs experience both higher infection rates as well as higher mortality rates. Black and Hispanic communities are harder hit than Whites with infection rates per capital greater than 50% higher in some states and neighborhoods. Minority children are particularly vulnerable where nearly 75% of all children hospitalized in some north east states were non-white. And even men are said to be 1.4 times more likely to die from COVID-19 as women, even though both have about the same risk of infection. About twice as many men are hospitalized as women and three times more likely to be in intensive care units. And current statistics report that currently 12% of those who are sick enough to be hospitalized will die.

To no one’s surprise, the top word of 2020 has been proclaimed to be “pandemic” by both Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com. Let’s hope the word for 2021 will be “gratitude” for having survived it all.

Worth reading this month is a message of hope on what the pandemic can teach us from Pope Francis on “A Crisis Reveals What Is In Our Hearts.”

Week of December 7-12

The second week of December 2020 ends with crossing over a staggering 300,000 deaths from the COVID pandemic; 50,000 of them in the last month alone. Daily infection rates are averaging above 200,000 for the first time. The total deaths are now more than the country experienced during all of World War II, and equivalent to the population of some major cities like St. Louis, Missouri. The average daily death toll is now hovering around 3,000 which is more than Pearl Harbor or 9/11. The news from Europe is no better with Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom reporting record infection rates and rising fatalities that threaten another complete lockdown. More than 67 million have been infected with 1.5 million deaths from COVID around the world.

Yet this sad news was overshadowed by the best news we have heard in many many months. The FDA gave approval to the first vaccine from Pfizer-BioNTech which is said to be 95% effective. Within a few days millions of doses will be on their way to hundreds of distribution sites around the country as part of Operation Warp Speed. Healthcare workers and vulnerable nursing home patients are expected to be the first recipients, as they should be. We bow our heads and say a prayer of thanks as the end of this nightmare is finally in sight.

However, it will take a projected half a year before most Americans are offered the chance to be vaccinated. And until then the country will experience the darkest days, especially if people do not wear masks, practice social distancing, and stop social gatherings. Unbelievable as it may seems, despite more deaths than WW2, some Americans – no, I won’t call them Americans – still refuse to do these simple things to protect members of their family and community. Arguments, protests, crashed meetings, threats, and fights break out all over the country by those selfish un-patriotic un-Americans who profess wearing a mask is an infringement on their damn liberty.  They want all their rights without any of the civic responsibilities. That is not a conservative value at all. Have we as a country lost our empathy for others as well as the ability to make a sacrifice for someone else? They should just be happy they are not drafted, sent to boot camp and then to the front lines to fight and die against another type of enemy in a foreign war. If they are so worried about their liberties then let them go to the back of the line for receiving the vaccine.

President Trump and President-elect Biden during the same day offered the nation drastically different messages. Over 50,000 Americans have died since the Nov. 3 election and Trump has largely been silent and certainly not consoling the nation on our loss. In a rare public statement about the carnage of the pandemic inflicted on America he took credit for the vaccine calling it incredible, amazing, and unprecedented. Biden instead offered the nation a realistic rendering of where we are, the pain we have experienced, and the sacrifices we musts make until most the country is immunized in mid-2021. He spoke words of comfort to those families who have lost loved ones about the hole in their hearts. He then did something Trump has refused to do, ask all Americans to wear a mask publicly, at least during the first 100 days of his presidency, to help turn back the virus as mass vaccinations are underway.

Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani entered the hospital this week ill with COVID. The week before he gathered in a 10-hour meeting of Arizona Republican lawmakers who were mostly maskless, which resulted in the state shutting down the entire legislature as a precaution.  Giuliani joins dozens of other White House aides, cabinet members, and advisors who have become ill. And just like other Trump loyalists it was reported that he received medical treatment and antibody medicines not yet widely available to other Americans who are even more sick. It just reminds us the President could not keep his own highly secure White House safe, much less the nation. The virus spread as freely among this administration and their constant lies did.

Week of December 13-19

The most blessed sight of the year, decade, or perhaps even a lifetime was that of seeing vaccines being shipped across the country, immediately distributed to hospitals and then quickly administered to thousands of health care workers as happened early this week. It could not have come any sooner as the death toll passed 300,000 at the start of the week with record highs in daily confirmed infections (more than 250,000), hospitalizations (more than 110,000), and fatalities (peaking at 3,600). Over 18 million Americans up to now have tested positive as we add 1 million new each week of this third wave. More than 1.7 million have died worldwide

While the carnage the pandemic has done to the US could have been mitigated by a president who took it more seriously early on, the vaccines are a testimony to all that is great about America – and what can happen when we collaborate with others around the world as Pfizer did with its partner BioNTech – in a vaccine that is developed, tested, and produced in a matter of months instead of years using a new genetic technology based on messenger RNA. The FDA approved a second vaccine from Moderna which will release millions of additional doses before end of the year. Experts say that 80% of Americans could be vaccinated by the middle of 2021.

Kudos to Vice President Pence for taking a shot in the arm this week on live TV as a public act to encourage others to do the same. But no, President Trump was just too busy pouting over the election and trying to overturn the results to be concerned with the pandemic or taking the vaccine himself.  He has said relatively little about the vaccine, even though his administration deserves credit for helping to make the Moderna vaccine happen so quickly using billions of federal funding to the drug manufacturers in project Warp Speed. (Pfizer did not take part in that program.) Maybe he did not take credit because red states with Republican leadership and large number of Trump supporters who believe it is just a hoax have had the fewest controls like mask orders and are now experiencing some of the highest case counts.

The jobless rates keep climbing; this past week nearly 900,000 more filed for state unemployment benefits. Another 455,000 were reported to have filed for assistance as self-employed or gig workers. The total said to still be receiving benefits is only 5.5 million, but few believe that number truly reflects the state of employment with millions having left the work force all together. The nation’s poverty rate is said to have risen to 12%. All while the country’s billionaires have seen their net worth rise by nearly $1 trillion since the pandemic started due mostly to record Wall Street highs and rapidly appreciating home values. The pandemic has clearly exposed two different economies for working, living and trying to survive in two different Americas with ever increasing inequality.

Pandemic unemployment relief checks from the Federal Government are still set to expire at the end of the year as Congress has not acted. Republicans and Democrats are haggling over the details of who gets what in a $1 trillion dollar package of relief, only the second one since the pandemic economy began. The Republicans are holding out for immunity for businesses before their constituents have immunity from COVID. We know where their loyalty lies.

Week of December 20-26

Christmas 2020 comes for American families minus the 330,000  – now 1 in 1,000 – who are no longer with us, along with the over 100,000 in hospitals and the 19 million infected who are at home ill or recovering. Total deaths in the US this year from all causes are expected to reach an all-time record of 3.2 million, 400,000 more than last year. This is the largest percentage jump since the 1918 pandemic and WW1 a century earlier. Despite one of the worst years many of us will experience, we give thanks for the blessings of those who are healthy and still have jobs.

The third wave of COVID is finally breaking its hold in the US and around the world. Daily death rates in the US have fallen below 3,000 and new infection rates are also falling. Total cases around the world exceed 80 million with nearly 500,000 on Christmas day alone. Much of Europe is still in lockdown with only essential travel out of the house allowed. A more easily transmissible and thus contagious variant of Coronavirus has emerged in Britain which has caused travel in and out of the country to be halted. Citizens are overwhelmed with the range of color-coded rules and restrictions that vary greatly across individual communities and whole countries.

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are being distributed across the US by the hundreds of thousands each week. Some 2 million people, mostly health care workers, are now said to have received their first of two shots. President-elect Biden received his first dose this week on TV and gave President Trump some credit for Operation Warp Speed. The President has yet to receive his shot as part of a national campaign to encourage all Americans to do the same. It is now said that the majority of American will be immunized until 2H2021, not 1H, requiring the continuance of mask wearing, safe distancing, and avoidance of social gatherings for most of next year.

Congress finally agreed to a long-awaited $900B pandemic relief bill just three days before Christmas. The bill will deliver aid to individuals, the unemployed, hard-hit businesses, public health agencies, food stamp recipients, renters facing eviction, and many more. In nearly 5,600 pages of legislation, the longest bill ever that few legislators claim they read in entirety, it included a $300 per week federal unemployment benefit with a direct payment of $600 to most Americans.

However, nothing good can happen in Washington DC with a narcissistic president hosing it up. Trump left Washington for his Florida resort without signing the bill, stunning members of his own party. He had been conspicuously absent from participating, much less leading, the effort to get a deal done, but once it was agreed to by Congress he jumps in to say it is defective. Trump now demands the bill should include $2,000 for every American, after which most of his fellow Republicans gulped or went into hiding from being blindsided. Most see this for what it is; an ego-driven pathetic attempt to sow more chaos all while several thousand Americans die each day, millions are unemployed, thousands of businesses are closing, and 8 million more have fallen into poverty.

In Palm Beach for a gala Christmas holiday, Trump plays golf and tweets out more lies while blaming others, rarely saying a word about the misery the country is experiencing. Without the President’s signature on the new bill it is reported that more than 10 million Americans will lose their unemployment benefits, more small businesses will shutter for good, and more millions will face eviction from their homes. Additionally, the federal government will face a shutdown since the COVID relief bill was tied to an interim funding bill for the entire government.

A House subcommittee on Coronavirus has found that the White House exerted political interference and pressure on the CDC to change or block government reports. It is alleged that the administration is trying to hide documentation and bully staff members who did not concur with a dangerous, misguided policy to achieve herd immunity.

Week of December 27 – January 2, 2021

The sobering month and terrible year ends with 20,000,000 confirmed cases and 350,000 fatalities in the US related to COVID. Over 70,000 died during the month of December alone. New cases are running an average of 200,000 a day. One in 17 Americans have been infected. One in 1,000 have died. A record setting 125,300 patients are in hospitals, and the fatality data indicates that 10% of them will die. Another record high of over 3,800 deaths was recorded in one day alone this week. Someone is now dying about every 30 seconds across the country. Funeral homes in California are turning away bodies and families as morgues are full. LA County alone has had 10,000 deaths. Many of the millions who have survived are experiencing debilitating illnesses that earn them the name of long-haulers.

The numbers are staggering and heartbreaking. But I worry that many of us, including myself at times, and we as a nation are becoming numb to such horrific numbers. That is one reason I chronicle this first-draft of history in its making least we forget or worse fail to learn from it. Or political parties like that of Trumpism write and lie about history to their liking. The lack of leadership from the White House, as well as from many Governors, is keeping the country from coming together to mourn, grieve, and move forward, especially compared to similar tragedies over our nation’s history. Dr. Anthony Fauci has joined President-elect Biden in preparing the country by saying that January, after the holidays with all the family gatherings are over, will be even worse for the country. By the time Trump leaves office it is projected 400,000 Americans will have died.

President Trump claimed that by year end we would have 20 million Americans vaccinated. He also once said at a campaign rally there would be 100 million does available. No surprise as that was another grand exaggeration if not intentional lie. We end the year with an estimated 3 million people having been vaccinated, despite millions of doses manufactured and distributed. And that count was just for the first of two does, not the full vaccine set.

Just like with the failure in testing we don’t have a well-managed national strategy, plan and priority system in place for vaccinations, despite having 10 months to prepare for this mammoth task we knew was coming. Instead, it seems like every state, every county health department, every city, every industry, every hospital, and every health care provider making it up largely on their own. As if they did not have 10 months to get ready. As a result, there is mass confusion and anxiety among the population as to who will be vaccinated, when and by whom. In Florida senior citizens wait for hours in long lines only to be turned away when supplies for the day run out. Then add this to a large percentage of the population that is already skeptical of the vaccine’s efficacy or safety, and well, we have yet another avoidable self-made human disaster that will cost thousands of lives.

In good news a 3rd vaccine, from AstraZeneca and Oxford University, received approval in Britain. Unlike the two previously approved vaccines, this one does not require special handling with ultra-cold freezers and thus the cost to produce, distribute, and administer is much lower. With worldwide deaths now at 1.8 million, this is great news for the billions of people in developing or poor countries who do not have the funding nor infrastructure for a massive mRNA-based vaccination program.  Thankfully, there are two more vaccines in final-stage testing to help out with the billions of doses that will be required this next year. But if even the supposedly rich countries of the world can’t execute a vaccine delivery program, how will the poor among us ever be able to do so, especially while the rich horde it for themselves?

A more transmissible virus variant first found in the United Kingdom has now surfaced in at least three states in the US. It is likely in far more locales as the US still has relatively low rates of testing and sequencing the virus, which is required to determine its type, compared to other countries. It is not clear if the current vaccines work as well on the new variant or if it makes people sicker and more likely to die, in addition to being 50% more transmissible.

As another example that COVID can kill anyone, a young congressmen-elect from Louisiana, Luke Letlow, with no known underlying health issues died quickly within two weeks from testing positive of Coronavirus. Yet, conservatives in many communities across his own state and the entire country continue to protest wearing masks, social distancing, and other restrictions on social gatherings. The families of an estimated 3,000 health care workers who have died from COVID have a good reason to be outraged at their fellow citizens who won’t make such a small sacrifice while they put their lives on the line daily.


The above news items have been taken from a number of local, regional, national and international news media  including print, broadcast, and digital sources, but no social media. Additional editorial opinions and comments about these news items are those of this author.

The feature image of of daily US COVID hospitalizations is from the COVID tracking project at https://covidtracking.com/data/charts.