Column: The End Is Near?

Congratulations! I understand from recent news releases that the pandemic is coming to an end.  State governors who supported pandemic-related mandates, such as the need for children to wear masks in school, are lifting mandates. That there have been vocal protests to these mandates and that the courts have shown little interest in supporting mandates in general probably contributed to this change of hearts. Politicians are often more concerned with re-election than with reality. Irritable voters oppose uncompromising legislators and governors. 

This year’s crop of malcontents have gone so far as to threaten the lives of science-minded public servants. Who could have imagined six years ago that school board members would need armed protection from parents who want them dead for insisting that their children wear masks in school?  Imagine how these parents might respond if their children were required to wear school uniforms. School board meetings would need to be searched for explosive devices before each meeting.  Americans will only consent to such sartorial requirements if they are obliged to spend large sums of money on private educational institutions.

But what is the good news that has prompted this drastic turn-about in public health measures? Is the pandemic over? Is the end in sight? Can we breathe freely on each other without fear of killing our children, spouses, parents or grandparents? Of course not.

America is still experiencing more than 1,900 daily deaths from Covid-19. Nearly 30 percent of people tested in many communities are still developing new Covid infections. The number of new infections is as bad as it has ever been during most of the past two years. Declining hospitalizations and increasing availability of intensive care unit (ICU) beds, as well as some localities with days free of Covid-related deaths, have prompted our elected officials to claim that the end is near. That we have faced at least four waves of recurrent disease washing over our population is irrelevant, they insist. Yes, our leaders assure us that we can breathe easily over our children who have been out of crowded classrooms for much of the past two years. This new group of vulnerable humans, they assure us, should not be stricken by the bug, even if only a small fraction of them has been vaccinated.

There certainly has been a decline in Covid cases in recent weeks, but we have seen this before and it always proved premature. Perhaps this time it will continue, and Covid related deaths will become as infrequent (or frequent) as those from other causes of pneumonia. Covid-19 complications are still the number two leading cause of death in America.  Heart disease is the only problem causing more deaths. Death from cancer, accidents, and strokes are still less frequent than deaths from Covid-19.

Perhaps the virus will completely disappear. That has happened with other viral pandemics.  It could happen with this one, but it has not happened yet.

Nothing short of a miracle will keep the death toll from this virus in the United States from exceeding one million. We have already lost more than 900,000 fellow citizens, and containment efforts have been a disaster.  Only 27 % of the adult population has had a full set of vaccinations and a booster shot. About 64 % has had a full complement of vaccination shots without a booster.  Neither number supports the notion that we can achieve “herd immunity,” the point at which so many people have resistance to the virus that it effectively stops spreading. 

In fact, both numbers are overstatements of the vaccines received by the general population.  There has been an epidemic of fraudulent entries into state data bases by morally bankrupt healthcare providers who have sold bogus vaccination cards and entered false injection reports into the state systems. https://eastoncourier.news/wp-admin/post.php?post=43359&action=edit This means that the percent of Americans who have received vaccine protection against the virus is less than the government statistics suggest. Also, the number of cases of infection and Covid-related deaths has been understated by state government interference with reporting systems, as in Florida. We may have already suffered one million deaths from Covid and not had an accurate count of our losses.

The simplest of recommendations to avoid spread of the virus have been ignored or subverted. Efforts to avoid mass gatherings were abandoned nearly two years ago when some politicians, religious leaders, and other individuals who measured their popularity on the basis of how many people they could crowd into a closed space insisted on ‘super-spreader’ events. Social distancing has become a punch line. Even many of those who advise it do not practice it. Quarantine requirements have shrunk from weeks to days to ‘never mind.’ Athletes who have refused vaccination have been banned from performing in some venues in New York and allowed to participate fully in other venues in Florida. We have allowed high profile, public figures, such as Sarah Palin, to attend public dinners immediately after testing positive for the virus but still require restaurants in many venues to enforce mask mandates. Palin faced no consequences. Noncompliant restaurants risk fines or closure.

A century ago, a flu virus suddenly appeared and killed millions of people. It disappeared as inexplicably as it had appeared, but it spent eight years harvesting people all over the world. The brunt of its fury was felt in the U.S. between 1918 and 1920. There was no vaccine to protect the vulnerable, and most Americans were vulnerable. Then, as now, there were many who professed virtue as the best protection against the virus. Then, as now, many of those virtuous people died from complications of the virus. Then, as now, most physicians advocated commonsense measures to stop the spread of the virus. Then, as now, millions of Americans ignored or opposed the advice and fell sick.

Optimism has its place when dealing with tragedy, but the truth is that we are still in the midst of a pandemic and must make adjustments in our lives to protect ourselves and our loved ones.  Perhaps Covid-19 is on its way to extinction.  Perhaps it is ramping up a new mutation. The truth is we do not know.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.

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