On today’s date, May 12, 2022, President Joseph R. Biden ordered U.S. flags to be flown at half-staff in recognition of our country reaching the avoidable tragic milestone of one million (1,000,000) souls lost to COVID-19. This is more than just a number. It represents family members lost and lives, livelihoods, and communities disrupted. Researchers estimate that 250,000 American children have lost their primary caregivers. This has ongoing daily impact and generational altering implications.
Our organization, the Cincinnati Medical Association, advocates for the healthcare concerns of underserved communities and the interest of African American physicians. It was clear early in this pandemic that African Americans and other people of color were suffering from the ravages of this SARS-CoV-2 virus in a disproportionate manner. We approached this advocacy role regarding COVID-19 in early March of 2020. By early April 2020 we were astounded by the total of 7,000 American deaths. In April of 2020, the world had few tools to combat this scourge. Recall the mantra of the 4W’s. Wash your hands, Wear your mask, Watch your distance (6ft), and Wait for a vaccine. Unfortunately, “American exceptionalism” and “rugged individualism” reared their ugly heads early on. This was a harbinger of things to come and a major driver of the factors which have resulted in America doing so poorly at managing this COVID-19 pandemic. The USA has 4% of the world population and 16% of the COVID-19 deaths. Too many of the citizens of the USA refused to accept the 4W’s even though they were quite simple and proven public health measures for prior pandemics. The objections of these Americans have continued even against the pandemic-fighting advances developed by US scientists.
Despite a 142-fold increase in COVID-19 deaths in merely two years, all too many Americans do not believe that COVID-19 is real. They consider the recommended measures an affront to their “freedom “. Secondly, our healthcare disparities and pre-existing conditions have been exposed as fuel for this pandemic. Additionally, many African American, Indigenous Americans, and other people of color retain long held justified suspicions of the medical community. They therefore remain reluctant to consider the potential benefit of the new medications and vaccines.
The actions, or inactions, of our federal government in 2020 further ingrained suspicion and resistance and contributed to the COVID-19 management failure. A March 2020 Inspector General (Dept. HHS) report documents the early deficiencies under which our nation’s hospitals were operating. The failure of the then president and his administration to convey a consistent message that the threat of COVID-19 was real and to use the Defense Production Act to help address the hospitals’ needs for adequate testing, sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE), staffing, supplies, and durable medical equipment
This same 2020 American federal government demonstrated superior judgement by pushing for the rapid development of three vaccines, Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson. Unfortunately, the effort was labeled “Operation Warp Speed” and suspicions of inadequate vetting were amplified. The then president initially failed to tout the value of these safe and effective vaccines. This along with other political and social factors have resulted in only 70% of Americans being fully vaccinated in spite of the widespread availability of the vaccines. These vaccines have been gamechangers. Those who are fully vaccinated and boosted do not become severely ill or die even if they become infected by one of the variants that continue to develop. We fail to vaccinate, the virus replicates and mutates. The adverse political attitudes regarding this pandemic have been festering for two years. This counterproductive political divide is fertile ground as cases are on the rise again.
What is different from 2020? Vaccines are available for nearly all individuals six and above. There is adequate testing available. We understand better the method of transmission, mitigation measures (masking, social distancing, proper ventilation) and more effective treatment methods. There are oral medications for treatment early after a positive test, and antivirals, steroids, and monoclonal antibodies for later in the clinical course. Yet we mourn the deaths of so many of our fellow citizens. The most fitting tribute to them would be to get more people vaccinated, boosted, and following the recommendations of our public health experts.
Clyde E. Henderson, MD
Cincinnati Medical Association