Bearing Witness to the Pandemic March 2021

Week of March 1- 6, 2021

As the month begins the US is averaging 2 million vaccines per day. Over 50 million people have now  received at least one shot. More than 80 million shots have been administered with 25 million people having received both shots required of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Over 15 million doses are being shipped out to the states each week. This is a huge improvement in a short amount of time, but still far short of the estimated 80% vaccination rate that officials say is required for herd immunity to kick in.

The pandemic in the US is now over a year old. In that time nearly 29 million Americans have had confirmed cases with a death toll of 520,000.

President Biden says that the country was on track for every adult in America to be vaccinated by the end of May. The President said he had brokered a deal between Johnson & Johnson and Merck to partner on the production of J&J’s recently approved one-shot vaccine.

The President spoke clearly and succinctly, somewhat unusual for many Democrats, when he called out the governors of Texas and Mississippi for their Neanderthal thinking in removing COVID restrictions, such as wearing masks and limiting business occupancy. The President called lifting limits a big mistake.

The rapid decline in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths is starting to level off if not stall. Public health experts are worried that more contagious virus variants may combine with a loosening of  social behavior and restrictions to fuel a fourth wave across the US.

With the focus on getting shots into arms, the effort to get swabs into noses as part of testing is now secondary. So the true number of cases may be much higher than those reported. This also has the affect of decreasing the test for variants.

Week of March 7-13

President Biden signed a $1.9T bill to rescue Americans and the country’s economy from the ravages of the pandemic. The bill provides relief to many: the unemployed, families with children, local and state governments, schools, testing and vaccination programs, ACA healthcare insurance premiums, renters and homeowners in arrears, food assistance, small businesses, and direct payments to help stimulate the economy. The bill also included assistance to public broadcasting networks which Americans had increasingly depended upon for their news will locked down in their homes.

In his first prime time speech to the nation, President Biden announced that all Americans will now become eligible for receiving vaccinations by May 1, months earlier than many had expected. By encouraging us to continue to wear masks and avoid gatherings, he held out that by July 4th we may be able to celebrate with family our independence from the pandemic.

The CDC provided good news in guidance that the country is turning the corner. They advised that people who have been fully vaccinated may begin to return to some normalcy in spending times with their families and socially in small groups with others who are also vaccinated. However, everyone should still wear masks, avoid large gatherings, and do social distancing. Unnecessary travel is still be discouraged, but that has not stopped millions of Americans from travelling over the traditional Spring break holidays.

In some of the best news, restrictions for families to see their loved ones in nursing homes have been relaxed. The saddest images of the past year have been those of elderly residents who were locked inside unable to see or hug their family members except through windows. The saddest data of the past year was the mortality rates of some nursing homes that were overrun by COVID where dozens of residents died, alone and separated from their families. In some states nearly half of all COVID-related deaths occurred among nursing home residents. Nationally, over 125,000 residents died accounting for nearly 1 in 4 of all fatalities. And some 1,500 employees, many of them overworked and underpaid, were killed by the virus as well. We cannot allow this tragedy to ever happen again!

A third wave in Europe gains steam due to infections by more transmissible variants. More alarm that a fourth wave may be showing signs of starting across the US, especially as more states remove all restrictions and too many Americans start behaving as if the risk has passed.

A new survey reported that nearly half of Republican men way they will not get vaccinated. WTH? Don’t these idiots realize that by not getting a shot they only delay herd immunity for all and provide more time for mutations of the virus to rise up which current vaccines may be able to suppress? There is nothing conservative or patriotic about not getting a vaccine and not wearing a damn mask that can save members of your family, community and coworkers from illness or even death.

The week ends with over 30 million confirmed cases in the US having taken 530,000 lives. Worldwide there have been 120 million cases and a staggering 2.6 million fatalities. But good news is that 70 million Americans have now received at least one vaccination shot. The daily rate is averaging an awesome 2.2 million shots per day with nearly 3 million on one day alone this week. And to think that every 100 full vaccinations may be saving several lives. Over 30 million, about 10% of the nation’s population, are now fully vaccinated. The president’s goal of vaccinating 100 million Americans in his first 100 days is in sight.

March 14-20

The number of new cases and deaths per day continue to fall to about 50,000 and 1,000 respectively. This is less than a third of what they were just a few months ago. But further declines seem to have hit a wall with rates settling into a new normal plateau. Officials are still weary that this is not the lull before a 4th wave in the US.

More than 20 million doses of 3 different vaccines are now being distributed each week across the US. Daily vaccine rate averages are approaching 3 million. Biden’s goal of 100 million shots into the arms of Americans has now been achieved a month sooner than he had promised in early December.

Despite the flood of vaccines into states, many who are qualified to receive it report they are still unable to do so. The elderly, ill, disabled, and compromised in urban cities are often driving hundreds of miles as “vaccine hunters” to rural mass vaccination clinics. And that is after spending hours on the Internet searching and sifting through dozens of registration sites from state agencies, local governments, local county health departments, retail pharmacies, superstores, Facebook groups, website apps, and of course hospitals. To make matters even worse, eligibility requirements can vary between states as well as within them. The country had months if not close to a year under the Trump administration to prepare for the vaccination, and it has largely failed just like it did with quickly rolling out a national testing program.

The US begins looking at distribution of millions of excess vaccines it has ordered, and may not need, to our North American neighbors Canada and Mexico. President Biden has also moved for the US to restart contributing funds to the international COVAX effort for developing and impoverished economies of the world. This is great news for countries in Africa, where less than 10 million doses have been administered.

More research has found that the transmission rates of the virus in schools that follow protocols is low. The CDC relaxes its recommendations for schools which will thankfully allow students to return full time to their classes.

More inequalities are becoming increasingly visible out of the pandemic. Low-income households are facing evictions and rising rents. Higher-income families are seeing their home values and household wealth soar. It has been estimated that the world’s billionaires have gotten 20% richer during the 2020 year of the pandemic.

Surveys have reported that less than one-half of Republican men say they will get vaccinated. That was apparently too much for even ex-President Trump who must fear losing some of his followers to COVID.  He finally came out encouraging everybody to get a shot. That was after taking credit for making the vaccines even happen. Polls have shown that many conservatives and Republicans are poorly informed and mistaken about the basics of the virus and COVID. As example, many  think that if you are not showing symptoms you cannot infect someone else, or that deaths from COVID were lower then the seasonal flu or those due to car accidents. Not.

In more good news, a new study from Europe suggests that those who recover from COVID are likely to be protected from reinfection for up to six months. They still don’t know how long the current vaccines are effective, but many expect we will have to receive annual shots or boosters as we do for seasonal flus.

The American Psychological Association reports that nearly half of all Americans have reported increased stress,  anxiety, depression, and dread over the past year.

The leaders of some countries who openly dismissed the pandemic have not escaped becoming ill or even dying. Tanzania’s President John Magufuli dies from suspected case of COVID. He had been a skeptic and called for his followers to just pray and use herbal steam treatments to avoid becoming ill. Brazil’s Bolsonaro, UK’s Johnson, France’s Macron, the wife of Canada’s Trudeau, and of course America’s Trump were all stricken ill or tested positive by the virus.

March 21 – 31

The death toll in the US surpasses 550,000 from 30 million cases. The decrease in new cases had recently leveled out at 50,000 per day but has now started to climb to over 60,000. The 7-day average in fatalities has finally fallen below 1,000 per day. Some states are reporting no new deaths on a given day and some hospitals say they no longer have COVID patients in their ICUs.

As feared, infections are on the rise in nearly half of the states. Officials warn that a fourth wave if it gets going could be worse than previous ones. The CDC Director warned of impending doom if we let our guard down at this critical moment. The sense of urgency to accelerate vaccinations is even more dire in a race to head off this wave. Health officials and the President urge people to continue to wear face coverings, perform social distancing, avoid gatherings, and not undertake non-essential travel. But tens of millions of Americans are not listening from the pictures of spring break family travel.

And many Republican governors are also not listening to the president or health scientists as they continue to relax restrictions and refuse to mandate mask wearing. All while more data is emerging that confirms many of these same GOP-led  states had much higher chances of their residents getting the virus, then becoming ill, then dying than those states with mask mandates and other restrictions.

Europe is facing another round of lock-downs with their third wave gaining momentum. In the southern hemisphere, deaths in Brazil are at all time highs of 3,000 per day from over 100,000 new cases each day. It is now feared that total deaths in Brazil may surpass that of the United States by year-end. International health officials have restated their support for the troubled AstraZeneca vaccine which hundreds of millions around the world were depending upon.

The good news is that vaccination rates are indeed racing ahead at the rate of 3 million per day. Nearly half of all adults over 65 in the US have now been fully vaccinated. And real-world data from those who have been vaccinated show that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are indeed about 90% effective at reducing serious illness and death. As a result, vaccine resistance and hesitancy is fading, as it should be.

Pfizer this week said its vaccine was safe and effective in adolescents as young as 12. In one group it was 100% effective. That is excellent timing as most of the new admissions to hospitals are coming from much younger patients than in last year. The company and its partner BioNTech also said that their new target was to produce 2.5 billion doses this year. God bless all the miracle workers that will make this happen!

But there are still many states struggling to distribute the vaccine to the most neediest populations. Missouri is one of those states that has ranked consistently near the bottom in its response to the virus, then to testing, restrictions, and now vaccinations. As example, nearly a third of those who have been able to obtain vaccinations had to travel outside of their home county to do so. The state never enacted a mask mandate, even after our Governor and his wife became sick from COVID. Few wear masks in the state legislature which has proposed bills to strip local public health directors and cities from enforcing restrictions to protect their populations.

The CDC announced what we all knew but were reluctant to say out loud; our eating habits and lack of exercise to maintain healthy weight contributed to hundreds of thousands of Americans dying from COVID. In nearly 150,000 patient records examined the data showed that obesity was a common comorbidity of 50% of those who did not survive COVID. Another 28% who died were overweight.  Those with a BMI of over 45 were 33% more likely to be hospitalized and 61% more likely to die. What we the public need to do individually to avoid the next pandemic is obvious. But they so was an even more simple ask of just wearing a damn mask which many could not even do.

A report from the WHO on the origins of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China, may have raised more questions than it firmly answered. The findings said it was “likely” that it started by jumping from animals, most likely bats or pangolins, to humans. However, the lack of complete transparency and access to facilities and raw data from China led some to be concerned that the virus could still have originated in a lab and leaked out.

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 CDC COVID Data Tracker showing trends in the number of COVID cases.

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