The secret to our past year of Covid success

2022 was bad — but it could have been worse. This essay is part of an end-of-the-year series looking at the silver linings.

We entered 2022 in a state of high anxiety about what Covid-19 would do next. While the vaccines were offering lifesaving relief, it wasn’t clear if they would hold against new variants and whether we wouldn’t all soon be returning to mass closures.

Even though none of the worst-case scenarios occurred this past year, what did happen was a continuing global disaster and tragedy.

But the novel coronavirus failed to fulfill the worst of our nightmares — no doomsday variant emerged to make our vaccines useless, hospitals and morgues were not completely overwhelmed, the world’s economies did not collapse under the strain of a spiraling pandemic.

While four years of crisis have left many people in a state of numb indifference, it is important to remember why the story of Covid-19 in 2022 was better than it might have been.

It was better because of the unyielding dedication of the federal, state and local governmental public health agency workforce — officials, clinicians, staff and volunteers, from top leaders on down. In public and behind the scenes, they did the vital work of preventing infection and caring for the sick. They promoted and delivered vaccines, developed prevention strategies, monitored data and did a million other unheralded things to help weave a stronger public health safety net. We owe them a great debt.

It was better because regular people did their part. While many scoffed or shrugged at the danger of infection, the burden of prevention fell to everyone else — to the vaccine-takers, mask-wearers, home-testers, indoor-crowd-avoiders, grandparent-protectors — all of us who took the science seriously and shunned the politics of ignorance and stupidity. 

Underlying both of these reasons for the cautiously hopeful Covid-19 news from 2022 — knowing that any news, good or tragic, is always relative: the wisdom of medical researchers and public health practitioners, and the good sense and smart behavior of the public. 

We will need all of these things to make it through 2023. Even though none of the worst-case scenarios occurred this past year, what did happen was a continuing global disaster and tragedy — especially in the U.S. Covid’s toll of sickness and death was, and still is, intolerably high.

We are entering the new year already immersed in a winter surge of sickness — a “tripledemic“ of Covid, flu and the respiratory virus called RSV. Cities are considering the return of mask mandates. A recent report has shown that the Covid death rate was higher in Republican-leaning counties, which should be a warning to the party most closely associated with hostility to masks and vaccines. Meanwhile, top health officials are warning that persistent vaccine misinformation remains a serious public health threat.

There has been a shift in news coverage of the pandemic (which President Joe Biden in September unwisely declared to be over) and in people’s attitudes toward the virus, as much of this country has started to move on from the pandemic. But the danger has not gone away. Instead, millions of Americans are actively making a choice to leave whole segments of our population behind — people who are immunocompromised, people with chronic illnesses, infants and children too young to be vaccinated, and the elderly, to whom the virus remains a serious threat.

It’s easy to say the pandemic could have been worse and call it a day. But we cannot let our guard down now — not if we still want to keep people from needlessly getting sick and dying. Particularly in vulnerable communities where access to vaccines, therapeutics and good information are lacking, there is much work to be done.

The good news is that we have what we need to make a difference. We have more therapeutics now. We have vaccines that still work amazingly well at keeping you out of the hospital and cemetery. We have boosters that would vastly increase the web of protection if more people stepped up to take them. And this common-sense principle is still true: When you enact and maintain good policies, good things happen. The opposite is equally true: When you scoff at good policies, things can get worse.

We were lucky that 2022 was better than expected. New virus strains were far more contagious but not far deadlier. Rickety public-health systems more or less withstood the strain. Huge public investments in medical and social supports — from free at-home test kits to emergency funds to prevent foreclosures and evictions — made a difference. But luck is not a long-term prevention strategy, and we need continued investment. 

However, money to fight the pandemic is drying up and unlikely in the forthcoming Congress. In the past two weeks, deaths from Covid are up 63%, a possible harbinger of things to come in 2023. We’d all be in a better place next year if the people who decided to stop caring about Covid started caring again — or we can choose to continue to press our luck and keep our fingers crossed.

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