A semblance of normalcy seems near as cases of COVID-19 decline, masks come off.
This is a column by Mark Murphy, a Savannah physician and author and longtime contributor to the Savannah Morning News.
Ethan Canin, a physician author whom I admire, once said that physicians make good writers because we see “great and terrible things.” No event in my medical career has made this point stand out more than the COVID-19 pandemic.
There’s no other way to put it: it’s been a terrible year.
When the pandemic began, the medical profession found itself rushed on an urgent journey into the unknown. Doctors are accustomed to the data, making decisions based on peer-reviewed randomized controlled trials (RCTs) that have been presented at national meetings and reviewed to the nth degree.
COVID came to us, out of nowhere, like a runaway freight train.
When the pandemic started, people were dying and we were in despair. Doctors shared treatment ideas based on fragmented and anecdotal data on Facebook and Reddit, but we largely flew by the seat of our pants, occasionally gleaning information from our colleagues in China and Europe.
It was terrifying.
Over time we started to get a feel for what was working and what was not. COVID patient care has improved and death rates have started to drop. We all expected the pandemic to run its course and go away, but politics hampered public health interests and things got worse. This country saw huge spikes in cases last summer and again last winter. Several of my friends and colleagues fell ill, some ended up in intensive care units, and a few even died. The fear that I would somehow infect my family, potentially causing debility and even their death, was an unspoken undercurrent every day. My wife, who is a two-time cancer survivor, and my elderly father and mother-in-law made our family risks high.
Studies showing that the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines were both very effective and very safe was the best news I have had all year. The rapid development of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines has been a triumph of scientific innovation bordering on miraculous. More than 2.26 billion doses of the vaccine have been administered worldwide to date, with nearly one billion people having received at least one dose of the vaccine in the past six months. The magnitude of this effort is simply astounding. Unfortunately, politically motivated disinformation campaigns on social media have hampered vaccine delivery, exacerbating the pandemic.
I finished my second dose of Pfizer vaccine on January 4th. My father, mother-in-law and wife were vaccinated shortly after. My children followed suit as soon as they were eligible. Vaccination was a light at the end of a very long tunnel, finally showing us the way out of pandemic hell.
At this point, more than 3.5 million people worldwide have died from COVID. The actual number is probably more. Third World countries with poor information gathering capacity and inadequate healthcare infrastructure are unable to adequately care for large numbers of their sick patients. Based on actuarial data on excessive deaths, The Economist has estimated that the actual number of COVID deaths worldwide could reach 10 million (https://www.economist.com/briefing/2021/05/15/there -have- been-7m-13m-excess-deaths-in-the-world-during-the-pandemic). In the United States, more than 33.4 million people have been confirmed to have COVID, and nearly 600,000 have died – the most countries in the world. Georgia has recorded 1.1 million confirmed cases and 10,300 deaths. Chatham County has recorded 23,000 confirmed cases and 463 deaths (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/us/georgia-covid-cases.html). I took care of a lot of these people. Some of it has been horrific – old and young people are dying, or paralyzed, or facing long-term debility on the basis of COVID-related damage. Anyone who doubts the veracity of the inherently virulent maturity of this virus should spend time with a medical professional. Their doubts would quickly be erased.
But there is hope on the horizon.
In the United States, as vaccination rates have increased, cases of COVID-19 have declined significantly. At the time of this writing, 51% of the United States had received at least one dose of the vaccine and 42% were fully immunized. Georgia lags a little behind those numbers, with 40.5% having a dose of the vaccine and 33% fully vaccinated. But the trend is undeniable. Cases are dropping, masks come off, and things seem able to return to a semblance of normal just in time for summer vacation.
I have learned some valuable lessons during the arduous journey of this past year.
Life is precious. We are all too caught up in the daily hubbub of our daily activities to truly appreciate the subtle beauty of life itself. Life is a miracle. It’s way too short and we all take it for granted. We should not.
Staying healthy is important. Good health is a commodity that most people don’t talk about until they don’t have it, but when they don’t they can hardly think of anything else. Doing simple things like diet, exercise, and health care maintenance activities are worthy efforts. The pandemic motivated me to stay in shape and keep my good health intact.
Blood is thicker than water. During the pandemic, we spent more time with some family members, but less time with others, and we missed them. Todd Murphy, my first cousin and college roommate, passed away suddenly this spring. We planned to meet after the pandemic was over, and then suddenly he was gone. It was hard. I developed a greater appreciation for family ties during this difficult year – and a desire to strengthen those ties even further.
Take the time to enjoy life. I hardly took any time off in the past year. Each day seemed to merge into the next, the hours passing in the sanitized uniformity of pandemic purgatory. Weeks were inexorably melting into months.
Looking back, that was a mistake.
When I’m on my deathbed, I’m certainly not going to say, “I wish I could have worked more. In the future, I’ll spend more time recharging my batteries – with trips, concerts, barbecues or a good book. Tomorrow may never come. I want to enjoy life while she is here.
It has been a long and stressful year, filled with uncertainty, loneliness and grief. But I have already planned a summer vacation and bought tickets for a few concerts. College football season is just around the corner (Come on guys!). Soon it will be 2022, with the horrors of COVID 19 finally retreating into the rearview mirror.
Frankly, it can’t happen soon enough.