The Early Edition of The New York Times last Sunday carried six news and feature stories on page one: Looming inflation in the U.S. Declining population worldwide. Life for Palestinians under Israeli occupation. The reluctance of grand juries to indict police officers. Debt relief for Black farmers. Kangaroo hunts in the Outback.
Is it possible? There were no front-page stories about coronavirus… about COVID-19… about the pandemic… about the vaccines.
Make no mistake, the pandemic is still big news, but for a long while it seemed to be just about the only news in town. Thanks in large measure to the swift development and deployment of vaccines, and steep declines in cases, hospitalizations and deaths, COVID-19 is now making room for consideration of other things in daily American life.
Make no mistake about this, either: The pandemic is not over and the vaccination effort in the U.S. is only halfway home, even as fully vaccinating 50% of the adult population – 129 million people – stands as a stunning accomplishment. The rest of the world remains a viral tinderbox that can send flames across continents.
But the tone and tenor of life as we know it has changed dramatically. A veil has lifted; the end of the tunnel appears to be just around the next bend. We see shafts of light. Memorial Day parades are making a comeback here and there if not everywhere.
Consider that in mid-April of 2020, more than 90% of the U.S. population was living under a stay-at-home or shelter-in-place order. Nursing homes bore the brunt of COVID-19 illness and death. As one CEO told a recent panel convened by McKnight’s Long-Term Care News, “We did everything we possibly could do, but it was like the devil walked through and was invisible.”
From this vantage point we can survey the damage left in the wake of this hurricane, (or tornado, tsunami, earthquake – take your pick of natural disaster). At this writing, the SARS-CoV-2 virus has claimed nearly 3.5 million lives around the world and nearly 590,000 in the U.S., a number drawing closer and closer to the country’s toll of 675,000 in the 1918-1919 flu pandemic.
Beyond the numbers, the coronavirus has profoundly affected virtually every aspect of the way we live and think, the way we work and play. As we approach the summer and a hoped-for respite, we take a look back at moments then and now that have educated, inspired, and frightened us, and take a look at the road ahead.
This edition of the Coronavirus Briefing is 2,241 words long and will take you seven minutes to read.
On April 26, 2020, Dr. Lorna Breen died by suicide at the age of 49. According to her sister and brother-in-law, Jennifer Breen Feist and Corey Feist, she was “an avid snowboarder, salsa dancer, cello player and the ‘cool aunt’ to eight nieces and nephews” who loved tooling around Manhattan in her convertible sports car. She was also the director of emergency medicine at New York-Presbyterian Allen Hospital, on the front lines of the pandemic and a COVID-19 survivor herself.
· The Feists, writing this week in STAT, recall that “the sea of patients and the overcrowded hospital began to take a toll on Lorna. As a healer, she was unable to heal. She became consumed with fear of the professional stigma of not being able to keep up in a pandemic and worried that she could not get support to address her deteriorating mental health without losing her medical license.”
· A bill now in Congress with bipartisan support is known as the Dr. Lorna Breen Healthcare Provider Protection Act. Its goal is to help prevent burnout and suicide in health professionals and to mitigate the stigma and ostracism that too often accompany the attempt to seek help. The first Dr. Lorna M. Breen Annual Lecture, honoring her memory, was held April 21 of this year in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York.
· Burnout and suicide were issues within the medical profession well before COVID-19 arrived on the scene, but the pandemic has now etched them in stark relief. Lecia Bushak, writing in MM+M, cites a Ketchum study reporting that 47% of healthcare workers feel more burned out now than they did at the beginning of the pandemic and that 27% want mental health care integrated or expanded in their benefits programs. Ketchum chief of staff Michelle Baker said the next stage of the pandemic will focus on mental health challenges that “affect everyone, from the youngest members of society who are seeing record anxiety to aging people who have been dealing with loneliness.”
· Also in MM+M, Real Chemistry’s Kevin Johnson takes a close look at the ripple effect of the pandemic on mental health and explores a range of constructive responses. “There has never been a better time for those of us who consider ourselves health innovators and communicators to ensure that the healthcare companies we work with are part of the solution,” he says.
The Takeaway: The mental health aftershocks of the pandemic will require focused attention and a coordinated response.
The tenor and the captain
On May 23, 2020 Leszek Swidzinski, a tenor from the Polish Royal Opera, strode into a sunwashed hospital courtyard in Warsaw, looked heavenward, stretched out his arms to the blue sky, and sang “Nessun dorma,” the powerful and triumphant aria from Puccini’s Turandot. A choir of doctors in scrubs accompanied him while their colleagues, looking on from upper-story windows, wept and applauded. It was a moment of hope and comfort at a time of utmost dismay and despair.
· The scene repeated itself around the world. Quarantined Italian tenor Maurizio Marchini sang Nessun dorma from his balcony in Florence. Seattle Opera’s Stephen Wall belted it forth from his front lawn. Alex Aldren, who trained in medicine, left for the opera stage and returned to medicine at the time of the pandemic, serenaded his colleagues in the National Health Service. In Europe, 700 children became a massive virtual chorus singing Nessun dorma, holding up signs expressing hope and love, an effort orchestrated by children’s charity Europa InCanto and led by quarantined maestro Germano Neri.
· Song lifted us in countless ways. In the U.K., Sir Captain Thomas Moore, a World War II veteran, raised millions for coronavirus relief by taking laps around his garden with his walker in advance of his 100th birthday in the spring of 2020. He then joined with singer Michael Ball and a chorus of health professionals in a rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone that became a #1 hit in the U.K. Sir Tom died not quite a year later, in February 2021, of coronavirus. On the occasion of what would have been his 101st birthday on April 30, the fundraising continued in his memory. As Sarah Cooney explains in Third Sector, Sir Tom’s legacy lives on and continues to inspire.
The Takeaway: In dark moments, song expressed a belief that we can survive the worst, that hope can prevail. And we have survived. And hope does prevail.
Kizzmekia Corbett is a brilliant young (35 years of age) African American immunologist who played a leading role in the development of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine while working for Dr. Anthony Fauci as a research fellow at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Both of them were virtual commencement speakers this month at Dr. Corbett’s alma mater, the University of North Carolina.
Dr. Corbett starts a new job on June 14 as an assistant professor in the department of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. There she will head up a brand new laboratory on coronaviruses and other emerging infectious diseases, with the goal of informing the development of new vaccines.
Her influence extends well beyond the lab. As Harvard noted in announcing her appointment, Dr. Corbett “has used her national platform to address lingering vaccine hesitancy, or as she calls it, ‘vaccine inquisitiveness,’ in the Black community and reassure skeptics of its safety and efficacy by speaking virtually at churches and other community organizations.” She plans to continue her advocacy efforts in Boston.
Dr. Corbett notes that “Vaccines are the great equalizer when it comes to addressing health disparities, especially around infectious diseases… If the last year has taught me anything it’s that anything is possible.”
The Takeaway: The pandemic has shined a glaring light on the healthcare disparities affecting minority communities. Achieving equity ranks high on the still-to-do list.
While COVID-19 has not taken a severe toll on the pediatric population, the youngest among us do get sick, get hospitalized and die from the disease, and a few thousand have suffered from an inflammatory condition affecting multiple organ systems that can be fatal. In addition, children have suffered from flagrant interruption and disruption in the intellectual, social and emotional nourishment that education provides.
· More than a year into the pandemic, schools are looking to return to full-time in-person instruction in the fall. The two biggest school districts in the country, in New York and Los Angeles, have made that commitment.
· Through it all, children have shown resilience and strength. In PRWeek, Kaplow Communications president and chief strategy officer Randi Liodice shares “What my kids taught me during the pandemic.” Her fourth-grade and seventh-grade boys, she says, have enabled her to “embrace the uncomfortable,” appreciate that “a little care goes a long way” and understand that “hope is a powerful tool.”
· While not a central part of the COVID conversation a year ago, children and adolescents now occupy center stage as the missing pieces of the vaccination puzzle. The Pfizer vaccine is authorized for children and adolescents 12 and older, and the Moderna vaccine will soon submit its own data for that age group. Meanwhile, clinical trials are proceeding with all due speed in kids ages 2 to 11, and they could be lining up for their shots in early 2022 if not sooner.
The Takeaway: Family discussions and family decisions, informed and supported by family doctors and pediatricians, may yet get us close to herd immunity.
A few thoughts for the road ahead
As mentioned, we are not out of the COVID woods. After a summer of relative ease, a resurgence of disease in fall and winter remains a worry. A well-vaccinated population is a levee against that tide. In addition to addressing the issues of mental health and health equity highlighted above, the coronavirus story of 2021 will feature a number of ongoing subplots:
· Navigating the return to work for the white-collar world. Current government guidance in England is that people should work from home if they can, Chris Thompson reports in People Management. Social distancing measures apply, and employers must make health and safety risk assessments and implement appropriate measures. More than 500 outbreaks or suspected outbreaks of COVID-19 occurred in offices in the second half of 2020, the BBC reports, more than in supermarkets, construction sites, warehouses, restaurants and cafes combined.
· Repairing the economic damage inflicted by the pandemic, including the mass departure of women from the workforce.
· Developing better treatments for COVID-19, to identify infection early on, keep people out of the hospital and off ventilators, and address the lingering clinical consequences of “long COVID” for those who survive.
· Reimagining long-term care. Senior living communities that offer off-campus, in-home services may compete with traditional home care companies, Kimberly Bonvissuto reports in McKnight’s Senior Living. McKnight’s Liza Berger and Diane Eastabrook offer further insights into the move toward more home-based care.
· Dealing with the social, political, legal and practical challenges of vaccine mandates and vaccine passports.
· Figuring out how to vaccinate the world.
Some thoughtful recent additions to the coronavirus reading room.
· The beginning of the end of the American pandemic, Dhruv Khullar, The New Yorker
· Covid pandemic should serve as ‘Chernobyl moment’ for global health reform, international experts say, Helen Branswell, STAT
· How to do hybrid right, Lynda Gratton, Harvard Business Review
· What happens when Americans can finally exhale, Ed Yong, The Atlantic
· Why “getting back to normal” may actually feel terrifying, Sharon Guynup, National Geographic
· How Covid changed science, William A. Heseltine, Scientific American. “It’s not just the speed and focus with which the community responded, but the singular willingness of scientists all over the world to share new ideas and data immediately and transparently.”
…and some songs
· Puccini’s Nessun dorma, Leszek Swidzinski
· You’ll Never Walk Alone, Sir Tom Moore, Michael Ball and the National Health Service · Voices of Care Choir
· A Place in the Sun, Stevie Wonder
· Walking on Sunshine, Katrina and the Waves
· Island in the Sun, Weezer
· I’ll Be Seeing You, Billie Holiday
As we move ahead into what we hope will soon be a post-pandemic world, this is a fitting time to put a bow on the Haymarket Media Coronavirus Briefing newsletter and, after nearly 15 months of publication, wrap it up. We’ll continue to share news and views in the Vaccine Project Newsletter every Wednesday. The vaccination effort remains the engine that will get us from where we are to where we need to be.
Thank you for being with us and staying with us. Be well and stay well – and on this Memorial Day weekend, let us remember and honor those who have served and those we have lost.