On the third anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic, the virus is still spreading and the global death toll is approaching 7 million. However, most people are back to normal thanks to a wall of immunity built up from infections and vaccines.
It seems the virus is here to stay, with the threat of a more dangerous version sweeping the planet.
“New variants that appear anywhere threaten us everywhere,” said virus researcher Thomas Friedrich of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Maybe it will help people understand how connected we are.”
As sources of information dry up, tracking the pandemic has become more difficult. Johns Hopkins University on Friday shut down its robust tracker, which it launched shortly after the virus emerged in China and spread around the world.
Saturday marks three years since the World Health Organization first declared the outbreak a pandemic on March 11, 2020, and the U.N. health organization says it is not yet ready to say the emergency is over.
A look at where we are:
THE VIRUS CONTINUES
As the pandemic continues to kill 900 to 1,000 people a day worldwide, the hidden virus behind COVID-19 has not lost its power. It is easily spread from person to person by airborne respiratory droplets, killing some victims but leaving most to bounce back unharmed.
“Whatever the virus is doing today, it’s still working to find another winning way,” said Dr. Eric Topol, head of the Scripps Broadcast Research Institute in California.
We are numb to the daily death toll, says Topolya, but we should consider it too high. Consider that the number of daily hospitalizations and deaths in the United States, while lower than at the worst peaks, has not yet fallen to the low levels reached in the summer of 2021 before the delta variant wave.
At any time, the virus can change to become more transmissible, more able to evade the immune system, or more deadly. Poplar said that we are not ready for this. Trust in public health care institutions has decreased, which contributes to the outflow of health workers. Resistance to stay-at-home orders and vaccines may be a legacy of the pandemic.
“I would like us to unite against the enemy – the virus – and not against each other,” said Topolya.
There is another way to look at it. Humans unlocked the genetic code of the virus and quickly developed vaccines that work remarkably well. We created mathematical models to prepare for worst-case scenarios. We continue to monitor how the virus changes by looking for it in sewage.
“The pandemic has really been the catalyst for some amazing science,” Friedrich said.
The advances add up to a new normal where COVID-19 “shouldn’t be at the forefront of people’s minds,” said Natalie Dean, assistant professor of biostatistics at Emory University. “At least that’s a win.”
Dr. Stuart Campbell Ray, an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins, said the current omicron variants have about 100 genetic differences from the original strain of the coronavirus. This means that about 1% of the virus genome differs from its starting point. Many of these changes made it more contagious, but the worst is probably over due to population immunity.
Matthew Binniker, an expert on viral infections at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, said the world today is in a “very different situation than it was three years ago — where there was essentially no immunity to the original virus.”
This extreme vulnerability has prompted measures aimed at “flattening the curve”. Businesses and schools were closed, weddings and funerals were postponed. Masks and “social distancing” later gave way to showing proof of vaccination. These precautions are now rare.
“We’re unlikely to go back to where we were because there’s so much virus out there that our immune systems can recognize,” Ray said. Our immunity is supposed to protect us “from the worst of what we’ve seen before.”
NO REAL-TIME DATA
Johns Hopkins released the latest update to its free coronavirus dashboard and hotspot map on Friday, putting the global death toll at more than 6.8 million. His government sources for real-time calculations have been drastically reduced. In the US, only New York, Arkansas and Puerto Rico still publish daily counts of cases and deaths.
“We rely heavily on publicly available data, and it’s just not there,” said Beth Blower, project manager.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to collect a variety of information from states, hospitals and testing laboratories, including cases, hospitalizations, deaths and which strains of the coronavirus are being detected. But on many points, less data is now available and less timely.
“People have come to expect data from us that we will no longer be able to produce,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.
At the international level, WHO’s COVID-19 tracking relies on individual country reports. Global health officials are concerned that their numbers grossly underestimate what is actually happening and that they do not have a true picture of the outbreak.
For more than a year now, the CDC has been moving away from counting cases and testing results, in part because of the growing number of unreported home tests. The agency focuses on hospitalizations, which are still reported daily, though that could change. Death reporting continues, although it has become less dependent on daily reports and more on death certificates, which may take days or weeks to arrive.
US officials say they are adapting to the circumstances and trying to move to a tracking system somewhat similar to how the CDC tracks the flu.
THEN AND NOW
“I wish we could go back to a time when there was no COVID,” said Kelly Forrester, 52, of Shakopee, Minnesota, who lost her father to the disease in May 2020, went through her own battle in December and blames misinformation in destroying a long-standing friendship. “I hate it. I really hate it.”
The disease seems to her to be accidental. “You don’t know who’s going to survive, who’s going to have long-term COVID or a mild cold. And then other people will end up in the hospital dying.”
Forrester’s father, Virgil Michlich, 80, a retired meat packer, delivery boy and elementary school custodian, died at the nursing home with his wife, daughters and granddaughters standing vigil outside the building in chairs.
“The hardest part was not being at his bedside,” Forrester said.
Inspired by the pandemic, her 24-year-old daughter is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public health.
“My father would be really proud of her,” Forrester said. “I’m very glad that she believed in it, that she wanted to do it and make things better for people.”
Associated Press writers Laura Ungar and Mike Stobe contributed. ___
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