Bearing Witness to the Pandemic February 2022

Just after the start of the grim third year of the pandemic, the US surpasses 900,000 confirmed deaths.  Over 100,000 were added in just the last 60 days. Could anyone have imagined two years ago that a million would perish from Coronavirus, especially since we pulled off a moon shot with creating highly effective vaccines in a year’s time. Many of the deaths in the past year were avoidable as less than two-thirds of Americans, about 211 million, are fully vaccinated.

The COVID pandemic has stolen the equivalent of 13.5 million years of future lives not lived from our families and communities. Think about that. Thirteen million years lost in the lives of parents, grandparents, sons, daughters, kids, lovers, friends, coworkers and all the contributions they would have made that we will now never know.

The US has the highest cumulative deaths as well as highest fatality rates from COVID than any other modern developed economy. Contributing factors are many, but resistance to public health measures, the overall poor health of the population, and anti-science politicization must be among the top three. Americans even before the pandemic were not very healthy with over 50% overweight and some 36% obese, creating other illnesses like diabetes. Nevertheless, it is heartbreaking that when the country was attacked by the virus, it did not bring us together as many national crises once did. Instead, it further divided the country into highly polarized, uncivil fragments which was fueled largely by (once) conservative Republicans and their media pundits.

COVID cases are declining as rapidly as they increased during December. Hospitalizations are also starting to fall but the daily death rate is still averaging 2,400 per day.

The FDA gave full (non-emergency) approval for the Moderna vaccine using real-world evidence from over 200 million doses. Pfizer had already received full approval last August. Both drug makers are said to be testing Omicron-specific vaccines as yet another booster option. Yet, some health officials are weary, saying that having endless variant-specific boosters is not a public health strategy that will work long-term.  They argue that it is not just an increase in antibodies created by a booster that creates protection from serious illness, but also the body’s memory T-cells which are less dependent on a particular variant.

Vaccine maker Pfizer has asked the FDA to approve vaccines for children under the age of 5. There are about 20 million children under 5 that have up to now been left out of vaccines. A few weeks later they rescind their request citing data that questioned the vaccine’s effectiveness.

Mental health professionals are warning that the country is experiencing an epidemic of anger, aggression, sadness, hopelessness, anti-social behavior, depression, suicides, and drug overdoses as the pandemic enters into its third year.  They report we are suffering a PTSD-like collective trauma.

More research is being performed on long-COVID with the expectation that millions of Americans will suffer from it for years or even decades into the future. Common symptoms of long-COVID include fatigue, memory problems, anxiety, depression, respiratory distress, and suppression of the immune responses. Scientists still don’t know why some people will suffer more than others after an infection.

Wildlife managers continue to study the prevalence of COVID among wild deer populations in the Midwest which has reached as high as 60% of the deer sampled. The good news is that the virus does not seem to be affecting the deer, but this wildlife could still provide a long-term reservoir for the virus and future variants to escape and infect humans, as they think the first strain of it did in China two years ago.

A new study has found that even a mild case of COVID can increase the risk of cardiovascular problems, like strokes and heart failure. This is true for both the old and young, and especially for those with preexisting conditions such as diabetes or obesity.

During the pandemic, millions of Americans have missed getting routine healthcare and annual exams that can ward off more serious chronic illnesses like diabetes, renal failure, and metastasized cancer. Medical experts say that nearly 10 million missed screenings for breast, colorectal, and prostate cancer. As a result, 10,000 more people may die whose deaths could have been prevented or at least delayed.

With the Omicron surge fading, more states and municipalities are relaxing requirements for mask wearing, isolation, and testing. It comes at a time when Americans are frustrated and tired, wishing if not mistakenly thinking the pandemic was over.  According to one poll, some 70% of the country believes that the risks of the virus are just something we are going to have to live with as COVID is here to stay. However, for the 7 million immuno-compromised Americans, life will never go back to normal as vaccines are far less effective at protecting this vulnerable population.

Daily death count peaks at nearly 3,500 at the start of the month before it begins falling rapidly during the mid-month. The number hospitalized is also falling fast to 100,000. Yet, in many states the death toll from Omicron this winter have exceeded those of the Delta surge in the Fall.

One thing that has not changed as we enter the third year is that residents of long-term care facilities continue to die at far higher rates than the general population. This despite most residents having been vaccinated at rates even higher than outside the facility.

Vaccine producer Johnson & Johnson has announced it is halting production of its vaccine which has fallen out of favor due to ever so rare reports of a blood clotting disorder. The J&J vaccine is especially important for much of the developing world as it does not require the same handling and super cold storage as the more fragile mRNA vaccines. But it comes at a time when only just over 10% of Africans have been fully vaccinated. J&J had previously projected it would deliver one billion doses in 2021, many destined for the third world, but produced less than half of that number.

In Africa, under 15% of the continent’s 1.3B population has been fully vaccinated. The dismal rate is due to a myriad of reasons including vaccine resistance, lack of health care staff and facilities, vaccine shortages, and poor political leadership. But in good news, the rates of infection, serious illness, and death have been lower than in many of the wealthier countries.

The CDC has updated its guidance to advise that healthy people and students can take off their masks.  Within days, states, cities, and school districts across the nation quickly followed with lifting their mask requirements.

The new SARS-CoV-2 variant BA.2 is circulating in more than 80 countries and all 50 states and has been found to be even more transmissible than Omicron. It is also said to be more likely to reinfect those who have already suffered. Thankfully, researchers say that it does not cause more severe illness. However, current vaccines are said to be somewhat less effective against this latest mutant.

The month ends with new case counts having fallen by 50%. Yet so many became infected during the last Omicron wave that many communities have arrived at that elusive level of herd immunity.  In fact, it was reported that some 10% of all new cases were reinfections.

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 deaths.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: