On the third anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic, the virus is still spreading and the death toll worldwide is approaching 7 million. Yet most people have resumed their normal lives, thanks to a wall of immunity built from infections and vaccines.
The virus seems to be here to stay, along with the threat of a more dangerous version sweeping the planet.
“New variants popping up everywhere threaten us everywhere,” says virus researcher Thomas Friedrich of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Maybe that will help people understand how connected we are.”
As information sources dry up, it has become more difficult to monitor the pandemic. Johns Hopkins University on Friday shut down its trusted tracker, which had started shortly after the virus emerged in China and spread globally.
Saturday marks three years since the World Health Organization first declared the outbreak a pandemic on March 11, 2020, and the United Nations health agency says it is not yet ready to say the emergency is over.
A look at where we stand:
THE VIRUS LASTS
With the pandemic still killing 900 to 1,000 people a day worldwide, the stealthy virus behind COVID-19 has not lost its power. It spreads easily from person to person, levitating respiratory droplets into the air, killing some victims but leaving most to bounce back without much damage.
“Whatever the virus is doing today, it’s still working to find another winning path,” said Dr. Eric Topol, chief of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California.
We’ve become numb to the daily death toll, Topol says, but we should consider it too high. Recall that in the United States, daily hospitalizations and deaths, while lower than on the worst peaks, have 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. Topol said we’re not ready for that. Trust in public health authorities has been eroded, fueling an exodus of health workers. Resistance to stay-at-home orders and vaccine mandates may be the legacy of the pandemic.
“I wish we united against the enemy – the virus – instead of against each other,” Topol said.
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 built mathematical models to prepare for worst case scenarios. We continue to monitor how the virus changes by looking for it in wastewater.
“The pandemic has really catalyzed amazing science,” Friedrich said.
The achievements add up to a new normal in which COVID-19 “doesn’t have to be at the forefront of people’s minds,” said Natalie Dean, an 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 current Omicron variants show about 100 genetic differences from the original coronavirus strain. That means that about 1% of the genome of the virus differs from the starting point. Many of those changes have made it more contagious, but the worst is probably over due to population immunity.
Matthew Binnicker, an expert in viral infections at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, said the world is in “a very different situation than it was three years ago — where there was essentially no existing immunity to the original virus.”
That extreme vulnerability forced measures to flatten the curve. Businesses and schools closed, weddings and funerals were postponed. Masks and “social distancing” later made way for showing proof of vaccination. Now such precautions are rare.
“We probably won’t go back to where we were because there’s so much of the virus that our immune system can recognize,” Ray said. Our immunity is supposed to protect us “from the worst of what we’ve seen before.”
REALTIME DATA MISSING
On Friday, Johns Hopkins released its latest update to its free coronavirus dashboard and hotspot map with a death toll of more than 6.8 million worldwide. Government resources for real-time counts had drastically declined. In the US, only New York, Arkansas and Puerto Rico still publish the number of cases and deaths on a daily basis.
“We rely so heavily on public data and it just isn’t there,” said Beth Blauer, data lead for the project.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to collect a variety of information from states, hospitals and testing labs, including cases, hospitalizations, deaths and which strains of the coronavirus are being detected. But for many points, less data is now available and has been less up-to-date.
“People have been expecting to receive data from us that we can no longer produce,” said CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.
Internationally, WHO’s tracking of COVID-19 depends on individual country reporting. Global health officials have expressed concern that their numbers are seriously underestimating what is really happening and that they don’t have a clear picture of the outbreak.
For more than a year, CDC has been moving away from case counts and test results, in part because of the rise in home tests that go unreported. The agency focuses on hospital admissions, which are still reported daily, although that may change. Death reporting continues, although it has become less dependent on daily reports and more on death certificates – which can take days or weeks to come in.
US officials say they are adapting to the circumstances and are trying to move to a tracking system somewhat similar to how CDC monitors the flu.
THEN AND NOW
“I wish we could go back to before COVID,” said Kelly Forrester, 52, of Shakopee, Minnesota, who lost her father to the disease in May 2020, survived her own battle in December and blames misinformation for ruining it. of a long-lasting friendship. “I hate it. I actually hate it.”
The disease feels random to her. “You don’t know who will survive, who will have prolonged COVID or a mild cold. And then other people will die in the hospital.
Forrester’s father, 80-year-old Virgil Michlitsch, a retired meat packer, delivery boy and elementary school custodian, died in a nursing home while his wife, daughters and granddaughters watched in lawn chairs outside the building.
Not being at his bedside “was the hardest part,” Forrester said.
Inspired by the toll of the pandemic, her 24-year-old daughter is now pursuing a master’s degree in public health.
“My father would have been very proud of her,” Forrester said. “I’m so glad she believed in it, that she wanted to do that and make things better for people.”
Associated Press writers Laura Ungar and Mike Stobbe contributed. ___
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