The COVID-19 Pandemic: The pandemic retreats, but not much other good newsMar 7, 2022
Starting with good news on the pandemic in Colorado, the numbers continue in the right direction with hospitalizations dipping below 300 on Friday to 273, less than 20% of the Omicron peak. The most recent modeling report suggests a continued decline in the weeks to come. When will this lull be interrupted by another surge? The “when” and “why” questions cannot be answered now, but we need to have more finely tuned surveillance systems in place when and if the next virus emerges so that we can answer them. Unfortunately, there are more letters available in the Greek alphabet for naming variants, the next after omicron and sixteenth being pi. The best way to avoid using more Greek letters is through vaccination that extends to everyone, everywhere. Certainly, we do not want to reach Greek fraternity and sorority territory—three letters in a row.
Like many at this point in the pandemic, I am noting two-year anniversaries with this weekend marking my last trip before the pandemic halted travel. Next week will be the two-year anniversary of the school’s quick turn to remote operations and there are more remembered days to come. This is a good moment for compiling lessons learned from these time-stopping two years. The March issue of Scientific American offers a quick read on “How COVID changed the world. Lessons from two years of emergency, upheaval and loss.” My list of such lessons is lengthy, but I give emphasis to increasing the resiliency of public health and hardening it against the consequences of politicization. The list also includes finding new strategies to contend with misinformation and disinformation and enhancing data and surveillance systems that should be better.
Another bad week for the planet. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change provided yet another dismal report card in its Sixth Assessment Report (AR6): “Since AR5, climate risks are appearing faster and will get more severe sooner (high confidence).”
Unexplainable and unimaginable tragedy continues in Ukraine. The inevitable humanitarian crisis is unfolding as 1.7 million people have left Ukraine and food and shelter are threatened. Russia now has control of not only Chernobyl, but Zaporizhzhya, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. Hopefully, an accident is not in the making. To date, there have been five major disasters with nuclear power plants; we don’t need a sixth.
COVID folies continue in Florida—hardly a surprising comment at this point in the pandemic. I write during a quick vacation in Naples, Florida, with quotations from Friday’s Naples Daily News with the eye-catching headline: “Desantis criticized over mask exchange.” The story describes a visit by Desantis to the University of South Florida during which he aggressively confronted high school students who were wearing masks. This quotation is the heart of the story: “‘You do not have to wear those masks.’ Desantis said in the video captured by Tampa’s NBC station, ‘Please take them off. Honestly, it’s not doing anything. We’ve got to stop with this COVID theater. So if you want to wear it, fine, but this is ridiculous.’” Bullying of high school students by a governor—perhaps reportable harassment?
I was in Naples visiting with a lawyer who became a friend after we worked together for four years on the litigation by the State of Minnesota and Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Minnesota against the tobacco industry. This was the only one of the state tobacco lawsuits to go to trial (in 1998) and it ended with a $6.5 billion settlement on the trial’s last day. My friend and I worked on testimony describing the story of smoking and disease and how smoking increased healthcare costs. The experience was an intense one and I relied on my lawyer colleague through hours of unpleasant depositions and three days of testimony and cross-examination as a witness.
For public health, one key achievement of the Minnesota trial was the eventual release of the tobacco industry’s internal documents into the Minnesota document depository and the Guildford depository in the United Kingdom, housing the British American Tobacco company’s documents. The documents are now maintained as the Truth Tobacco Industry Documents at the University of California San Francisco. They have been used for many projects on the tobacco industry’s research and strategies as it knowingly harmed public health for decades. Now, in the settlement with the Sackler family for profligate sales of opioids by Purdue Pharmaceuticals, a similar document depository is proposed. There will be much to learn from these documents coming from yet another industry that knowingly inflicted massive harm on public health in the United States.
Jonathan Samet, MD, MS
Dean, Colorado School of Public Health