Bearing Witness to the Pandemic December 2021

The last month of the year begins with a fifth wave of COVID, at this time fueled largely by the Delta variant, gaining momentum across the country, all while the new Omicron mutant arrives onshore. More than a dozen states now report Omicron positive tests. Some of those now infected say they were not travelers, so it has quickly become a community spread variant.

Daily new COVID cases have once again surpassed 100,000 with average daily deaths creeping up to 1,000 bringing the US total to over 780,000 deaths. Over 6,000 new patients are being admitted into hospitals every day with rates going up. You can hear the despondent sighs all across the country as the nation was hoping the worst was behind us and the year would end without the constant fear of a maddening pandemic chasing us into the new year.

Officials around the world are reporting that Omicron is even more transmissible than earlier variations of the coronavirus. International travel restrictions have now gone back into effect with dozens of countries reporting Omicron positive tests. Some good news is that the new mutant does not yet seem more deadly, at least to those vaccinated. But vaccine makers have yet to report if the existing vaccines are effective against the new variant.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has issued a bold new requirement for nearly 184,000 employers in the Big Apple to require their workers get vaccinated. The mayor calls it a preemptive strike before winter holiday gatherings and the Omicron variant is circulating.

Meanwhile in conservative states like Missouri, the Governor and Attorney General are doing all they can to negate public health orders that try to keep the state’s residents safe. Both elected officials are fighting mask mandates, quarantines, school closures, and vaccine requirements.  Governor Parsons administration even went so far to bury a report that showed mask mandates were indeed effective at slowing the virus transmission and reducing infection rates. That science did not support his idiot-ology beliefs, so he had the report shelved instead of publicly releasing it. AG Scmidt has told local communities, school districts, and public health agencies they cannot issue COVID-19 safety orders such as mask mandates and all existing orders are null and void. No surprise that county health directors in Missouri, unable to perform their jobs and being threatened by both the public and politicians, are resigning. Others have simply stopped tracking and reporting infections. Missouri Republicans seem intent on killing off their own political base as a vast majority of those who are hospitalized and dying in the state were unvaccinated. The problem with that irresponsible personal behavior is of course they put others in their family, workplace, and community at risk. Where is the conservative ethos in that recklessness?

A new NPR study has found that residents of counties which voted heavily for Trump in the last election were nearly three times more likely to die from COVID. The reason: the higher the vote share for Trump the lower the vaccination rate was. Political party identification and partisanship is now the single strongest predictor of whether someone is vaccinated and is at high risk for becoming infected, seriously ill, or dying. Deaths are overwhelming concentrated in conservative, often rural, areas of the country where there is another pandemic, one of misinformation.

Data continues to support a previous the finding that unvaccinated adults are 14 times more likely to die from COVID that those vaccinated. And 60% of the unvaccinated are Republican or Republican leaning. Conservative talk show hosts, conservative televangelists, and anti-science propagandists across the country who deny COVID, oppose vaccines, and claim masks don’t work continue to get sick and die. Not surprising, those who have refused to be vaccinated are less likely to believe they will get infected or become ill, and nothing will make them change their minds about doing so. You can’t fix stupid, especially when they are six feet under.

Overweight and obese people have been at high risk from COVID-19 all during the pandemic. Scientists at Stanford University now have clues as to why this is. It seems the virus likes to attack fat cells. A large mass of fat tissue can trigger an inflammatory response to the invading virus that can be more harmful to the body than the actual virus.

As the month goes on the Omicron virus is spreading rapidly with a doubling of reported infections every few days in some countries. With its high transmissibility, the mutant it is expected to supplant the delta variant in a matter of weeks. It now makes up to 20% of all new cases in some US states. US officials are warning that January could see a massive wave of infections sweep across the country, larger than previous waves.

New research is showing existing vaccines are not very good at holding omicron infections at bay as they generate only one-fortieth of the antibodies against omicron compared to earlier variants. That said, current vaccines are said to still be effective at minimizing hospitalizations and the push to have everyone receive a booster continues. Vaccine manufacturers and the CDC/FDA are not yet calling for an Omicron-specific vaccine. Another worry is that some monoclonal antibody treatments that were effective against earlier versions are less so against Omicron.

The good news is that most Omicron cases are mild so far, perhaps because so many previously vaccinated persons are coming down with it. Less than 5% of hospitalized patients are dying, when it was closer to 10% last year. More are able to manage the disease at home and out of the hospital.

At midmonth the death toll from COVID in the US passes 800,000 souls, a once unimaginable number that still shocks and numbs us. The US, which accounts for 4% of the world’s population, now has 15% of the known deaths. With over a thousand new deaths each day, and cases skyrocketing, the second full year of the pandemic ending in February 2022 may surpass 1 million. Think about it. That is one million fathers, sons, mothers, daughters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, spouses, and partners.

The US Surgeon General is warning of a mental health crisis stemming from the pandemic, especially among young people. Some 25% of youth report experiencing bouts of depression or anxiety. Rates of attempted suicide are also higher than before the pandemic.

Scientists are reporting that blood pressure among millions of Americans has risen during the pandemic. Nearly half of all Americans have hypertension, another preexisting condition that puts them at higher risk of serious illness from coronavirus. Not surprising, new studies are reporting that more Americans are behaving as if they are suffering from stresses due to prolonged crisis, trauma and PTSD. Rates of anger, anxiety, isolation, depression, attempted suicide, domestic disputes, social unrest, economic insecurity, social media vitriol, and public altercations are up across many portions of the country.

Many of the 50 million Americans who were infected with the coronavirus are living with symptoms of long covid. Estimates are that nearly 1 million are so sick months afterwards that they cannot return to normal family life or employment work. Long haulers report a constellation of symptoms from fatigue, confusion, shortness of breath, hypertension, pains, rashes, and gastrointestinal distress.

With the fall semester at colleges drawing to a close and students anxious to return home, infection rates have soared on campus, foreboding a treacherous holiday season with families. More schools have sent students home early and returned back to remote learning and testing. Others have started requiring students and staff get booster shots to ward off Omicron.

Hospitals and emergency rooms are once again approaching full across some states with more non-essential medical care and elective surgery operations being postponed. Ohio has asked for help from the National Guard as Delta and Omicron cases soar.  Health care professionals are going through hell largely because of those who refused to get vaccinated. There are shortages of ER and ICU beds along with nurses who are burnt out and justifiably demoralized.

Drug maker Pfizer announced that its new antiviral pill Paxlovid staves off severe illness when taken within five days from the onset of symptoms. An effectiveness rate of nearly 90% against hospitalization and death was quoted for those who were unvaccinated but received the drug. The company also said it was effective against the new Omicron variant and has asked the FDA for approval to use.

The FDA quickly approves both Pfizer’s Paxlovid and the new Merck drug Molnupiravir. Both antiviral treatments are for those who have reported symptoms within the previous five days. Good news is that these drugs are reported to be as effective for Omicron as previous variants.

In a surprise announcement, the CDC recommended that the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines be given preference over the single-dose traditional vaccine from Johnson & Johnson. In a few very rare cases the J&J shot was found to have contributed to blood clots that led to death in less than 10 people. The J&J vaccine was also reported to provide significantly less protection against earlier versions of the virus.

A federal appeals court has reinstated President Biden’s vaccine mandate for large employers which reversed from a federal judge that ordered the mandate be withdrawn.

New data suggests that while the current vaccines are not nearly as effective against Omicron in creating antibodies that keep it at bay, they do produce T-cells that have been trained to prevent severe illness in the infected for those vaccinated. This is one reason those previously infected or vaccinated can still become reinfected from Omicron. South African scientists had previously reported the mRNA vaccines were only 33 percent effective at avoiding infection from Omicron, down from 80 percent with earlier variants.

Antibody monoclonal drug therapies from Eli Lilly and Regeneron that were previously shown to be effective are reported by their drug makers to be less potent against Omicron.

As the holidays approach with travel and family gatherings, millions across the country are lining up for more testing which has become hard to find, even though we are nearly into the third year. Positivity test rates have doubled and are at double digit rates in some locales. President Biden has promised more than 500 million rapid tests will be made available at no cost to Americans early next year, but the need is now. How is it two years into the pandemic that we still don’t have a rapid response to provide rapid tests upon demand?

Also as the holidays near, new Omicron infections quickly surpass the Delta variant at a pae that even surprises officials.  The FDA is warning that total infections and hospitalizations will soon break records of the previous waves.  They continue to urge people and children get a third booster shot, which offers some increased protection, although less than 35% of those eligible have yet to do so.

Employers are sending workers back to their home offices. Campuses are dismissing the fall semester early. Broadway shows in NYC are being cancelled. Public health officials are encouraging nonessential travel and gatherings be postponed. Yes, we have been here before as what was once a hopeful holiday season becomes bleak.

The growth of population in the US during the first year of the pandemic was the lowest in the country’s history, only .1%, according to the US Census Bureau. In more than two dozen states, deaths outnumbered births. Deaths from COVID, postponed marriages, family finances, closed borders to immigrants, and fears about getting pregnant during a pandemic are all to blame.

The year nears its end with Omicron accounting for nearly three-quarters of all new cases, and the average number of new cases in the US exploding to over 200,000 per day.  New York reported over 50,000 cases on Christmas Eve alone. The UK surpassed 100,000 per day for the first time in the pandemic. Officials predict infection rates could hit 400,000 per day in the coming weeks leading to over 2,000 deaths per day by late winter.

More COVID cases are breakthrough infections of those already vaccinated. But there is some good news in that data from across the world is showing that Omicron is relatively mild for the vaccinated, inflicting symptoms that are more like a cold. A study in Scotland says that those infected with Omicron were 60% less likely to be hospitalized. However, for the unvaccinated or immune compromised, it is still a different story. An unvaccinated man in Houston was reported to have been the first to die from the Omicron variant. And while Omicron seems to be milder for vaccinated adults, pediatric hospital admissions of children are at an all-time high in some locales.

Researchers across the US are finding significant discrepancies in officially reported deaths due to COVID that suggests a substantial underreporting of total deaths. Some county coroners in conservative locales have said that they simply don’t report COVID deaths. The gap could mean that the actual fatality count in the US has already surpassed 1 million, more than 20% higher than the existing count.

More children by far are now hospitalized with COVID than any time during the 2-year pandemic.  Over 1,000 new children a day are being admitted. The good news is that there are fewer having to enter into pediatric ICUs. It is estimated that 1 in 10 kids have now tested positive since the pandemic started. Sadly, less than 15% of 5–11-year-old are vaccinated, and just over 50% of 12-17 year old’s are. Despite this, the majority of schools have yet to cancel return-to-class learning after the winter break. The FDA announces that the Pfizer booster may soon be approved for administering to 12-15 year olds.

The economy has started to grind to a halt with closures due to labor shortages from sick or quarantined workers. Airline travel has been disrupted for two weeks over the holidays due to staff shortages which cancelled tens of thousands of flights leaving hundreds of thousands of travelers stranded. As a result, the CDC changes its quarantine guidance from 10 to 5 days to allow for shorter isolation periods after coming in contact with someone who is infected. At the end of the five-day period, those who have no symptoms can return to work, classes, and normal activities.  Some health experts were surprised that the CDC did not recommend being tested before returning.

The month ends with a one-day record-breaking 500,000 new infections in the US as hospitals continue to fill towards 100,000 with the vast majority unvaccinated. Testing sites across the nation are overwhelmed over the holidays with wait times measured in hours and even days. The number is believed to be an undercount as millions of those who use home testing are rarely included in official state tallies.  As if this is not bad enough, public health officials warn that January will be even worse.

Worldwide, at the end of the month over one million new cases per day are being officially reported, also a new record that is expected to only grow.

New Year’s Eve celebrations were once again cancelled or downsized across the globe for the second year in a row. The year ends with increasing illness, death, and sadness; opposite of where many thought we would be at the beginning of 2021.

In the past two years over 55 million Americans have become infected with over 820,000 deaths. And it is far from yet over. I am so tired and sad of bearing witness to the carnage, suffering, and uncivility of the pandemic. But here we go into yet another year.

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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