Bearing Witness to the Pandemic February 2021

Week of Feb 1- 6, 2021

The 12th month of the pandemic starts with 460,000 deaths from just under 27 million confirmed cases in the US. The worldwide count is now over 100 million cases with 2.3 million deaths. But all metrics continue to fall as the third wave dissipates, yet the daily death count in the US is still averaging above 3,000.

Finally, the number who have received their first vaccine shot in the US surpasses the number of cases. It is over 27 million and rising fast. We are now consistently immunizing over 1 million people a day with several days at 1.5 million. At the current death rates from COVID, that could be the equivalent of saving 20,000 lives a day. Just think about that significance in a moment of prayer or silence. 20,000 lives a day are likely being saved.

However, the rollout has not happened without great anxiety and inequality across the nation. There are still no universal policies, rules, or plans for vaccinating over 300 million Americans as every state, county, and city rolls their own in a confusing maze that frustrates everyone, and is killing some needlessly. The good news is that Pfizer announced that it can deliver 200 million doses to the US by May, two months earlier that first anticipated.

Minorities, for a combination of systemic reasons, are being vaccinated at a rate half of the relative size of their population.  Huge numbers of the elderly and those at high risk are said to be moving around states and even across state lines seeking the life-saving vaccines as if in a dystopian hunger-games movie. What another mess with which the Trump Administration left the nation. We are not alone as the vaccination data for the poorer countries of the world demonstrate even greater disparity between wealthy and  and poor economies.

Local health officials continue to plead for faster vaccination rates before a potential 4th wave gets going in the US. It is feared that the far more contagious COVID variants from Britain, South Africa, and Brazil could negate all the progress made to date at turning the tide. If this happens, a resurgence of cases could occur in March with another devastating peak in late Spring.

It is still not clear how effective the current vaccines are against the mutations. A sense of dread overcomes the nation as we contemplate another full year with a new virus always chasing us and a new vaccine always in development. South Africa has already suspended the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine due to what they said was minimal effectiveness against the prevalent virus strain.

A fourth vaccine, this one from Johnson & Johnson, has sought emergency use authorization from the FDA in the US. It is somewhat less effective, but only requires a 1-shot regimen at no extra cold shipping and holding requirements. The vaccine could start shipping as early as March.

The effect of the pandemic on the youth of the country is becoming more clear after a lost year of classroom education for most of this generation. Some minorities are being particularly hit hard. As example, the number of Latino and Black students who went from high school to college this past year was said to have dropped by over 25%.

The Biden administration continues to press its case for a massive $1.9 trillion COVID relief package. Another 800k new unemployment filings were made this week. More than 10 million jobs have been lost with millions more – many women and moms in a she-recession – having left the workforce all together. New data reveals just how unequal the recession has been. Well-to-do Americans have seen their finances improve over the last year from rising home values, stock market gains, and increased savings rates due largely to few places to spend their incomes.

Weeks of Feb. 7 -13

The number of new daily new cases in the US has finally fallen below 100,000 as the third wave continues a drastic decline from a peak of 250,000 daily cases. The daily death count now runs at 1,700 per day, a sobering number, but nearly 50% lower than a month ago. The total number of confirmed cases in the US is now some 28 million with deaths projected to surpass 500,000 before the end of the month.

More than half of school-age children are still out of school across much of the nation. This is the second school year that has now been disrupted. Teachers, understandably, don’t want to return to the classroom until the pandemic is past or at least they are vaccinated. But in much of the country teachers, administrators, and bus drivers are not considered essential workers so they largely remain unvaccinated.  Pediatricians warn that the dangers to children from a loss of an educational year are greater than the risk of becoming sick due to COVID. However, the threat to teachers is a much different calculus.

The Biden administration announced the federal government has now purchased additional vaccines, another 200 million doses, for every American adult to be vaccinated in full by mid Summer.

The pace of vaccination is now consistently above 1.5 million per day in the US bringing the total to 35 million people who have received at least one dose and 11 million both shots. Yet, tens of millions of at-risk Americans are still being forced to chase after vaccination sites across their cities, states, and even across state lines.

Week of Feb. 14 – 20

Nearly 40 million people, about 12% of the US population, have now received at least one shot and 15 million both doses. More than a third of the 65 and older elderly are said to have received their first shot. The US government is now distributing to states over 10 million doses each week.

Early data from the vaccination records indicate that people of color are still being vaccinated at about half of the rate of white Americans. A number of reasons are cited including: distrust by minority communities, location of vaccination sites, transportation challenges, lack of access to the Internet for information or registration, and English as a second language.

The CDC announced that the average life expectancy in the US fell by a full year during the first half of 2020. It has not fallen so drastically since the horrors of WWII. However, it was much worse for Black and Latino Americans whose life expectancies dropped by 2.7 and 1.9 years respectively.

The pandemic continues to have odd consequences across our country. The miles traveled by car are way down  due to work from home, social events cancelled, and overall less travel due to lockdowns. However, fatalities from accidents are up by nearly 5% nationwide, and in some states like Missouri they have risen by 12%. It seems with less congested highways and fewer police patrols that people are driving faster and more recklessly. I can vouch for that as I routinely get passed by cars going 80 mph.

Another example is that hospitalizations and deaths from the seasonal flu are dramatically down this year by an order of magnitude. Each year the flu and complications from it is estimated to kill anywhere from 20-60,000 Americans resulting from 10-40 million cases. This year the total fatality may be in the low thousands. Public health officials say that mask wearing, social distancing, and other changes in behavior that slowed COVID were even more effective against this year’s flu.

Congress continues to squabble along partisan lines over the next pandemic relief package valued at $1.9 trillion. A total of $4 trillion was appropriated in 2020 which kept the economy from collapsing. The country is on track for a $2.3T deficit for the current fiscal year. These numbers are as staggering as the death count.

The disparity in changes to employment levels and household incomes continues to grow across America. Employment rates and earnings for those middle and upper class workers above $85,000 are said to have fully recovered since the pandemic begun. However, for low-wage workers and especially women and minorities, employment levels and wages remain below that prior to the start of the pandemic. The true unemployment and underemployment rates are estimated to remain stubbornly above 10%. Week after week another 500K-1M file for unemployment assistance with some 20 million or more said to currently be receiving aid. Many economists fear that many of these jobs will never return.

The week ends with deaths in the US totaling 495,000 and closing in on a heartbreaking half of a million souls.

Week of February 21 -28

On Monday, February 22, 2021, during the 12th month of the pandemic, we bore witness to the grim milestone of surpassing 500,000 deaths in the United States. It took only one month to go from 400,000 to 500,000.

It was just under one death every minute during every hour of every day for the past year.

The one state of California alone has suffered 50,000 deaths. In New York City nearly 30,000 have died, or about 1 in 300 residents. 

The number is greater than all the American military deaths during WW1, WWII and Vietnam wars. This is like losing the population of whole cities the size of Kansas City.

President Biden led the nation in a somber moment of remembrance and prayer after saying that “we have to resist becoming numb to the sorrow or viewing each life as a statistic.” Bells rang across the National Mall as flags were lowered to half-staff. Could we have imagined the former president doing any such thing to help the country mourn; especially after his administration lied to the public over and over again that it would all be over soon with few deaths.

The US death toll is by far the largest in the world accounting for 20% of the estimated 2.5 million global fatalities, even though we are 4.25% of the population. How could this tragedy have happened in the one country that should have been the most prepared and capable of heading it all off?

But there is good news as cases, hospitalizations, and deaths continue to fall rapidly across the country. All while the rate of vaccination is improving each day at an average of nearly 1.7 million shots. One day this week saw over 2.4 million doses administered. Nearly 100 million doses have now been distributed in the US with nearly 50 million people said to having received at least one dose. That is about 15% of our population. If you combine that with the 30 million who have tested positive and then double that for all those who health officials said were probably asymptomatic infections, it totals close to 100 million Americans, or nearly 1 in 3. We are closing in on herd immunity after defeating herd mentality.

However, health officials warn the country that the spread of new variants will likely cause another wave before vaccinations and herd immunity can take full affect. Another 100-200,000 deaths are not unreasonable to expect they warn, and we may still need to be wearing masks and practicing social distancing into early 2022. By the time this pandemic is over many of us will have lost two years of normal lives, while perhaps up to a million will have lost their entire life.

The month ends with a third vaccine, this one from Johnson & Johnson, found to be safe by the FDA and has been approved for emergency use. Clinical trials found it to prevent 85% of severe cases and 100% at preventing deaths. This vaccine requires only one shot and does not need to be stored and transported is extra-cold containers. Millions of doses are ready to be shipped in the coming week and J&J said it could deliver 100 million by the end of June.

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 featured image is from the COVID Tracking Project at US All Key Metrics | The COVID Tracking Project.

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