No, we’re not ‘done’ with COVID-19 yet | Opinion

by Sheryl Burt Ruzek, For The Inquirer
Published, February 8, 2022

I know this isn’t what people want to hear, but we can’t declare the pandemic is over just because we’re tired of it. After a long career in public health, I cringe as pundits and politicians breezily call COVID mild, no worse than the flu. Recently, Bari Weiss declared she was “done with COVID” on Real Time with Bill Maher, – calling restrictions a “catastrophic moral crime.”

When I heard that, I realized I’m done with anti-vaxxers, perpetrators of misinformation, and a culture quick to elevate private wants over public needs.

Unfortunately, now that cases from the omicron surge are finally starting to decline, I expect to hear even more pundits shout that they’re “done” with COVID. When the World Health Organization special envoy David Nabarro warned that the virus is still dangerous as nations began easing restrictions, a Forbes writer wondered “what the people making these optimistic predictions know that he and the rest of the WHO don’t.”

What Nabarro and other experts know is that we’re not “done.” And COVID’s not just like the flu. More than 890,000 people died from COVID in the U.S., and over 5.7 million worldwide. Between 2010 and 2019, flu only killed an average of 35,778 people in the U.S. per year.

Nabarro said COVID is “full of surprises” – and he’s right. There’s so much scientists don’t know about coronaviruses, and serious, unexpected effects may well emerge in the future. This can happen with viruses—for instance, people can develop post-polio syndrome decades after contracting polio, and shingles years after long-forgotten bouts of chicken pox. Physicians struggling to treat long-haulers can’t tell them what to expect in a week or month, let alone years out. There are already more than 50 long-term effects of COVID reported in the scientific literature, ranging from fatigue and headache to lung disease. For those suffering debilitating symptoms months and years after a bout, there is no “done with it.”

I get why people want to move on from COVID. I am weary of avoiding indoor activities and long for the pandemic to be over— or at least die down. But I am older and immunocompromised. I don’t have the luxury of being “done” with COVID just because I want to move on.

When I get discouraged, I express gratitude for vaccines, remarkably effective against hospitalization and death, especially with a third dose. I appreciate masks that allow people to work, travel, and enjoy daily activities when case rates remain relatively low.

But masks and vaccines haven’t ended the pandemic (yet). In the U.S., we’ve fully vaccinated only 64% of the population. Only 10% of people in low-income countries have received even one dose. Until we increase global vaccine access and muster the political will to require vaccination, this pandemic won’t be “over.”

When will COVID finally be over? A lot depends on what we do next.  For starters, we need to prepare for the unknown, and not wash our hands of COVID prematurely because we’re tired of it. I know this isn’t what people want to hear. Last year, when vaccinations became available and case and death rates began dropping, infectious disease researcher Michael Osterholm, warned the worst of the pandemic might still be ahead because of how variants might evolve, how infectious or able to evade immunity they might become. He reports being told by several television producers that his message was “too scary and defeatist to put on the air.”

We have to accept that we face an uncertain future.

Continuing caution – and restrictions – are hard, but humans have been through a lot worse. I know someone who grew up in Amsterdam during World War II, and sometimes had nothing to eat but tulip bulbs. Many will live with COVID consequences forever.

This virus isn’t done. Let’s face the current level of the surge in our own communities honestly, accept uncertainty head on, recognize many still need protection. With this, and a lot of patience, maybe eventually we can be done with COVID.

Sheryl Burt Ruzek is a professor emerita at the College of Public Health at Temple University.  


That’s How it Happened

Photo of beach in Cape may, NJ

A decade ago, I decided to write another book. On a warm beach in Cape May, New Jersey, I sat under a blue and white striped beach umbrella, listened to the crash of the waves and imagined writing a memoir. Not my own, but one of a favorite uncle.

I remember my uncle when he was a young man— daring, dashing, fun. When I was six, he pulled up from a trip to Guatemala with a straw bag brimming with native dolls for me. Growing up, my sister and I tore into his packages under the Christmas tree filled with anticipation. Where did he find treasures that no one else would have dreamed of buying us— the rhinestone bracelet, the toy stove, a hot pink pullover? I can’t remember when I learned he was gay, but by the time I had a crush on his handsome lover I knew. Everyone in the family knew they were more than just friends, but it wasn’t something people talked about in the 1950s. I lamented that my mother refused to take me along when she drove to San Francisco to be his hostess several times a year. Where she wore fancy dresses to fill in for the wife he lacked, having lost his, so the story went, along with his infant son in a tragic car crash. Family members argued for years about whether or not the story was true. He laughed the doubters off with impunity and an impish grin.

By the 1970s, my uncle was guardedly open with the immediate family about his homosexuality. In public he remained the handsome widower. His curly blond hair, infectious laugh, and dapper dress made him quite the man about town. Like many gay men of his era, he clung to the closet. As tragedies unfolded, he plunged into downward spirals fueled by illness, desperation and alcoholism. Along the way he abandoned Christianity, Unitarianism, and Buddhism. Late in life he frequented a mosque but decided that at 81 he was too old to learn Arabic—a necessity in his view for understanding Islam. After his final spiritual expedition, he settled back into his Unity School of Christianity comfort zone and exhibited new zeal for telling people how he lost his wife.

In his final home, a congregate care facility, he cut a striking figure. Tall and well dressed, with an imposing head of thick white hair, he strolled the grounds, a huge grey tabby cat draped over one shoulder. Erudite and well read, he charmed the ladies. They whispered about what a gentleman he was. Even after he died.

On his desk near the front door of his apartment, he displayed a picture of his late wife and son. Staff, residents and friends recounted to me in vivid detail what a tragic life he’d had. They retold his story as if her death had been yesterday, not forty years ago. Before he died, that dead wife shocked him to the core. She recognized him on the street in a university town far from where they’d grown up. Recounting their chance meeting, he snatched her photo from his desk, held it out toward me and rolled his eyes.”Oh, now I’m going to have to be careful!” He laughed, elbowed me and slipped her photo back into place.

Clearing his apartment, I came across keepsakes and photos that piqued my curiosity. For years afterwards, in quiet moments I mulled over his peculiar life. I still hadn’t found answers to many of the questions that haunted me as I sifted through letters, photos and genealogical research that he’d left in well labeled folders, cookie tins and a safe deposit box.

This was stuff of a memoir, but I’d never written one. In the summer of 2006, I enrolled in the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference, the oldest open writers’ conference in the country, in hopes I would learn how to tackle the project. The advice I got was to write his story as fiction.

I moved back to California and at the first California Writers’ Club meeting I attended, the speaker, Camille Minichino, asked people to share what kept them from finishing their work. She called on me.

“I’ve written a lot of nonfiction, but I don’t know how to write fiction.”

“If you can write, you can write fiction,” Camille said.

No equivocation, no caveats, no stern advice to enroll in an MFA program. I liked her authoritative voice, the way she handled a crowd. At the break, I asked her where I could learn the craft of fiction. She suggested I might like a class she taught. I did and confess that it took me close to a year to stop saying, “but that’s how it really happened.” It took even longer to stop thinking it.

The novel I’ve drafted bears little resemblance to the shreds of memory and conjecture that propelled me to write it. It isn’t a memoir, but truly a work of fiction. That’s how it really happened.