Bearing Witness to the Pandemic November 2021

The month starts with the official global death toll from COVID-19 surpassing 5 million from an estimated 250 million cases. However, most public health experts advise this number is way undercounted. One reason that experts feel the numbers are underreported is the example of Tanzania. Their president who had denied COVID claiming the country was free of it, then died from it himself, but had refused to collect data on the infected and dead.

Deaths in the US have now exceeded 750,000, the most of any one nation. The story of how the most prosperous and what should have been the most prepared nation on Earth fell so hard is still being unfolding.

At the start of the month, cases, hospitalizations, and deaths continue to fall in the US as the Delta wave dies down. However, rates in parts of Europe are climbing again at a double-digit pace. Germany has now reported its highest infection rate of the entire pandemic despite a high 67% vaccination rate. But like the US, it is very much the unvaccinated who are getting sick and dying, mistakenly thinking that the worst is over. Some regions like Saxony in Germany and Salzburg in Austria are going into yet another demoralizing lockdown precipitating civil unrest. It has become a painful U-turn for these nations who thought by now they would be on to a full recovery.

Russia has just experienced a stay-at-home non-working week.  Rates are also rising again in India where over 1 billion doses have been administered. But that means only 25% of its population is fully vaccinated. And as we will see near the end of the month’s COVID news, no place on Earth is safe if there is still one country where the virus is free to roam and mutate, then travel to the rest of the globe as happened with the Delta variant.

Nearly 200 million Americans are now reported to be fully vaccinated with 98% of those over 65 having received at least one shot. Nearly 25% of seniors have already received a third booster shot. This is a monumental accomplishment, despite the millions who still refuse to be vaccinated, some of whom unfortunately will pay the price with their lives.

Just under 50 million adults still refuse to be vaccinated. As a result, there are tens of thousands of COVID patients in US hospitals as just under one thousand per day are dying. Rates of new infections, while indeed much lower than the summer, appear to be plateauing at a higher level than between previous waves. Infections in the upper Midwest and Mountain West have begun to rise, once again due largely to the unvaccinated who are to blame, which could be signaling yet another wave, the fifth so far.

Some metropolitan areas are now reporting that between 20-30% of the hospitalized are vaccinated with breakthrough infections. Officials think it is not due to a failure of the vaccines, but simply waning immunity from those who received their shots early in the year. As a result, some states are approving boosters before the CDC and FDA do for their entire population, not just those over 65, immunocompromised, or performing hazardous work. Over 25 million Americans have already received the booster shot. Drug maker Pfizer has petitioned the FDA to nationwide make all adults eligible for a booster shot. Moderna is expected to follow, even as they fight the NIH over a legal dispute about ownership of the government-funded mRNA vaccine science.

Just in time for Thanksgiving travel and family gatherings, the FDA and CDC finally give approval for all adults over 18 to receive a third booster shot for the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines and a second shot for the J&J vaccine.  Already more than 30 million Americans, the majority elderly, have received a booster.

Officials warn that living with COVID could become the new norm as another wave or a different mutant may still arise as the virus pandemic becomes endemic. It may eventually become similar to the common cold or flu, that most survive although some will suffer and a few will die from it each year.

The CDC has set aside the expectation that the nation will ever reach herd immunity levels that are estimated at 70-85%. Now, just fewer than 60% of all Americans are fully vaccinated, a number that is not moving up very quickly.

US borders have now been reopened for the first time in nearly two years to international travelers who are vaccinated. In happy scenes across airports, separated families are now being joyfully reunited. Sadly, they will close again for some international travelers at the end of the month.

The US Labor Department and OSHA organization issued long-expected labor health rules that all companies with more than 100 employees must require vaccines or start performing weekly tests on the unvaccinated by Jan. 4 of the new year. This requirement was first proposed by President Biden in September as a means to finally choke off yet another wave of misery and deaths.  Predictably, extremists and radical conservatives in 27 states, who claim to value life, are taking the administration to court in an effort to block the new mandate which they argue is unconstitutional. And indeed, a federal court of appeals in Louisiana granted an emergency stay then denied the administration’s request to lift the freeze.

In good news, millions of children 5-11 are now receiving their vaccines across the country. Sesame Street’s Big Bird was the ire of conservative Republicans for tweeting that he had been vaccinated as part of an educational effort to encourage childhood shots. Go figure.

More research has emerged that perhaps up to 40% of all wild white-tailed deer in the Midwest have at one time been infected with SARS-CoV-2. Zoo animals across the country continue to get sick and die from COVID. Eight big cats in St. Louis became infected, despite being vaccinated. Three snow leopards died at a zoo in Lincoln, Nebraska.

The CDC announced another horrific milestone that over 100,000 people in the US died from drug overdoses in the period of April 2020 to April 2021. This was a record number that public health experts attribute to the stresses of a country living with a pandemic. The DEA reported that there was enough fentanyl seized to give every American a lethal overdose.

Men are still dying from COVID at a disproportionate rate of nearly 10% greater than women. Some argue it is due to riskier occupations, fewer safety precautions, or reduced vaccination rates, but those factors do not fully account for the difference in fatality rates. Rates of hospitalization and intubation are also higher for men. Some scientists are researching whether differences in immune responses and hormones between the sexes may be responsible.

New data indicates that pregnant women with COVID-19 risk nearly twice the rate of delivering a stillborn birth.  The vaccination rate among pregnant women is reported to be only 30%, despite a greater risk for those pregnant to suffer more severe illnesses and complications if infected with the virus.

More than 90% of federal employees are reported to have taken at least one vaccine shot after President Biden imposed his mandate for federal workers to become vaccinated. So mandates are effective tools to protect workers, their colleagues, and customers.

Irresponsible state governments like that of Florida continue to oppose mandates for mask-wearing or vaccination. The state has passed a law that asserts those who have already had COVID-19 are already sufficiently immune and do not need a vaccine. Medical professionals retort that this is more rubbish from an increasingly anti-science party. Yes, previous infections provide some immunity, but the evidence is clear that those who have been stricken can and do get sick again. One study reported that those who were once infected but then did not get vaccinated were at least twice as likely to be reinfected as those who did get the shot(s). It’s absolutely maddening to see a political party oppose actions that help to keep their own voting base alive. And as more anti-vaxxers get sick and die across the country, it is ever so sad to see their voters fall victim to the falsehoods, lies, and propaganda which kill them.

A federal judge in St. Louis blocked by injunction the Biden administration from enforcing a vaccine mandate on more than 17 million health care workers across ten states. Attorneys General in numerous states including Missouri are suing the federal and local governments from issuing and enforcing public health measures. They are of course just digging the graves for tens of thousands of more victims to fall into.

At the end of the month a new Coronavirus variant, named omicron, of high concern emerged around the world after first being reported in South Africa. This was all so predictable when there are still billions of people unvaccinated, providing plenty of time and opportunity for the Coronavirus to mutate. Less than 10% of South African’s population is said to be vaccinated. It’s a  tragedy that poor nations are desperate yet unable to get vaccines while rich countries have a surplus because so many won’t take the damn shot to help end the pandemic.

The new variant is said to have more than two dozen mutations, including some to the spike protein, which may prove it to be resistant to the existing portfolio of vaccines. Once again international travel is being restricted and borders closed, but this time within a few days of the new reports. Researchers don’t yet know if omicron is more transmissible, sickening, or deadly but South Africa has seen an exponential rise in cases over the past week. President Biden addresses the nation once again urging all to get vaccinated and those already vaccinated to get their boosters. He added there was reason to be concerned but not to panic. Stock markets around the world did not get the message as they suffered huge losses in the following days.

But maybe we should panic, if that will scare others into action so these rolling waves of surges can be arrested.

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 daily cases.

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