Tell me if you haven’t heard this one before: Cases of COVID-19 are easing, and maybe this time we’ll return to normalcy.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because the waning of the delta variant is the fourth time we’ve been through this. Hospitals are still under siege from serious COVID-19 patients, and funeral homes can barely keep up. But the raw numbers tell us this latest outbreak is subsiding.
With that in mind, what have we learned? Will we finally see COVID-19 loosen its grip, or are we doomed to another massive wave of outbreaks, disruption, distance learning and deaths?
A three-punch combo: For the second time in the pandemic, evidence shows vaccinations, naturally acquired immunity and mask wearing combined to bring numbers down.
During the winter, when COVID-19 was exploding here and across the country, an interesting thing happened: Cases and deaths among residents in long-term care facilities — nursing homes, assisted living centers and the like — nosedived.
In Oklahoma, the drop was sharp: 87%, according to an April report from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Among the 39 states tracking this data, the number was similar: 89%. That means for those most vulnerable to COVID-19, vaccinations drastically curtailed the disease.
That, plus the disease burning through susceptible hosts (this is where natural immunity comes in) drove those numbers down.
Mask-wearing, which became more commonplace as cases rose, has been cited by health experts as a way to stem viral spread.
Similar patterns emerged with the delta variant. Suddenly a new, more communicable version of COVID-19 emerged in America’s heartland over the summer, then spread across the country. Cases and deaths spiked, then fell in early fall.
Seeing how most of those who were hospitalized or killed via COVID-19 were overwhelmingly unvaccinated, the delta wave would have been far worse without the vaccines.
Delta’s surge also prompted an uptick in vaccinations after they declined over the spring and summer. Those who were infected and got through it added to the numbers of those with stronger protection against delta.
Locally, we saw steep declines in infections among Tulsa Public Schools students once mask rules were reinstated this fall. No one enjoys wearing them, but they work.
You’re not special: If there’s one thing the delta variant taught us, it’s that the evolving nature of the virus busted a lot of conventional wisdom about COVID-19.
During the 2020 outbreaks of the disease, we learned that it mostly affected the elderly and those with pre-existing health problems. The thinking was that if you were younger, healthier and had a good diet, COVID-19 wouldn’t be a big deal. Many were convinced that if we have this blood type, take that vitamin, do this amount of exercise and are under that age, we’ll be fine.
The delta variant turned that on its head. Many younger people were getting sicker and even dying. Children were starting to populate ICUs.
Stories from hospitals showing relatively young mothers and fathers dying from COVID-19 became an everyday thing. In Oklahoma, those 17 and younger bore the brunt of summer’s surge.
Even among the uber-healthy, delta could get nasty. In the case of Bill Phillips, a Colorado-based fitness guru and author who could bench press a small truck, delta nearly killed him. This happened after he got through a previous COVID-19 infection.
Phillips is living proof that natural immunity is no guarantee. All of us who invoked our special low-risk status weren’t so special anymore.
The words of Tyler Durden, a character in Chuck Palahniuk’s book “Fight Club,” come to mind:
“You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone, and we are all part of the same compost pile.”
Yes, even you — the healthy, the young, and the vitamin-fortified — can get this nasty bug.
It ain’t the flu: A common talking point among those dismissing the dangers of COVID-19 is that it’s not any more dangerous than influenza.
I can see why people are tempted to blow it off, given that the chances of dying of COVID-19 are around 1.5% to 2%.
But then there’s this: In the U.S., COVID-19 has killed more people in 18 months than the flu did over the past decade.
Clearly, they are not similar.
Vaccine shaming doesn’t work: This is more anecdotal, but I think it rings true: Attempts to shame people into getting vaccines usually have the opposite of the intended effect.
Last weekend, former ESPN and MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann made a video that showed him getting a booster COVID-19 shot, then deliver a minutes-long rant against people who haven’t joined him in getting the jab.
In it, he urged people to stop using terms like “vaccine-hesitant,” “vaccine skeptics” and the like. Instead, he rolled out words like “morons,” “losers” and “cowards,” saying they were “afraid.”
Yo, Keith, saying this might make you feel better but invoking these descriptions won’t win any converts.
Positive, even if somber, facts-based messaging is a grind at this point. But it’s way more effective than rolling out the worst traits of call-out culture.
Where to now? In March 2020, we were asked to “flatten the curve” for a couple of weeks. At another point, we were told COVID would “magically disappear.”
Last spring, we were promised we’d get our summer back. Now? Who knows.
Winter approaches, and last winter’s horrors are still fresh in our memories. The possibility of new variants lurks as long as COVID-19 has places to grow and evolve.
And yet, we have vaccines that we didn’t have a year ago, and the promise of ongoing medical research looking for ways to beat this thing.
Some predict that COVID-19 will be endemic, much like other seasonal illnesses. Others think we still have a chance to eradicate it.
Either way, one thing I think we can count on is this: For the immediate future, disruption will continue to be the rule. Brace yourself for that.