The COVID-19 Pandemic: Will 2021 bring the end of the pandemic?Jan 4, 2021
As my wife and I gave “Happy New Year” greetings to friends and family, uniformly we heard: “2021 will be better than 2020.” We even found donuts named (obscenely) with this theme. The first commentaries of the new year inevitably offer predictions. Here is the obvious: Yes, 2021 will mark the start of the turn toward normalcy, at least the 2021 version. That new normalcy will not directly mirror 2019 or the “carefree years” before.
Colorado starts the new year well positioned in terms of transmission control. Hospitalizations have dropped from the December 1 high of 1,847 to today's figure of 924, about a 50% drop from the peak but still above the April high of 901 hospitalized with COVID-19. We do not yet know if mingling and travel over the December holiday period will increase case numbers, but Colorado escaped a Thanksgiving-caused surge. Relaxation of policy measures takes place today as the Governor is moving Level Red counties to Level Orange, allowing restricted indoor dining. But, even as Colorado has maintained sufficient transmission control over the last month, the prevalence of infection remains high, and the hospitalization count of 924 today is well above the summer lows of around 130.
As 2021 starts, the state faces the competing forces of the new UK variant strain of SARS-CoV-2 and of rising immunity from the implementation of vaccination. Last week, Colorado had the distinction of being the first state in the United States where the new strain was identified—in Simla, a small town in Elbert County. Perhaps we will learn about its path from the UK to two National Guard members as contact tracing results are reported. Clearly, the UK strain is already circulating widely in the United States; it has been identified in 33 countries. Several lines of evidence support increased infectiousness without increased severity of infection, compared with previously circulating strains. Some of the 17 mutations that distinguish the strain appear to lead to functional changes that increase transmissibility. Both modeling and contact tracing support increased transmissibility, estimated at around 50% higher than comparison strains.
Vaccination has begun in Colorado with both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. The Colorado guidelines for priority vaccination were revised last week with changes to Group 1B. The rollout has been frustratingly slow across the country, perhaps not surprising given the enormity of the task of vaccinating most of the nation and eventually the world. The incoming administration promises an ambitious schedule: 100 million doses in its first 100 days. If herd immunity is reached when around 70% of the population is no longer susceptible, then that target might be reached during the summer.
Like many, I set goals for the holiday—reading and catching up on long lists of writing and other tasks—and, as always, I failed to achieve them. I did finish Michael Eric Dyson’s short book, Long Time Coming: Reckoning with Race in America. Writing after the murder of George Floyd, Dyson offers five letters to Black martyrs, using their deaths as a vehicle to tell the story of racism in the United States. His approach works. The power of the stories catches and teaches the reader about what happened decades ago (Emmett Till) and now (Breonna Taylor) and probes why, landing over and over again on long-embedded structural racism.
Continuing with books read, have you ever seen an open-pit mine? When I started my career at the University of New Mexico, the Jackpile-Paguate open-pit uranium mine at Laguna Pueblo was the world’s largest such uranium mine. Later declared a Superfund site and now reclaimed, the mine was a gigantic scar covering more than 3,000 acres across the Pueblo’s land. There are copper mines in the southern part of New Mexico and the now inactive molybdenum mine in Questa. Colorado has its still-operating Climax open-pit molybdenum mine. For a photographic understanding of the enormity of these mines, look at the work of photographer David Maisel in Chile.
The last paragraph is a circuitous introduction to Oak Flat: A Fight for Sacred Land in the American West, by Lauren Redniss. Oak Flat in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest is a sacred site for the adjacent San Carlos Apache. Under a land exchange arrangement, the Trump Administration will allow the development of the Resolution copper mine at Oak Flat, leading to irreparable physical, ecological, and spiritual damages. Redniss uses storytelling and art to capture the tension and drama of Oak Flat, as development and the economic force of a large corporation are pitted against the tribe’s traditions and conservation. The Resolution mine is not an open pit mine, but a deep mine that will eventually lead to a large crater through subsidence. Redniss ends with a list of other sacred sites that are possibly threatened by mining and energy extraction. Stay tuned.
Although this is my first commentary of 2021, I am avoiding predictions but have hopes. Happy New Year.
Keep wearing those masks,