When the second largest in the country school district reopens things have changed for the business community despite tens of thousands of positive coronavirus tests among students and employees.
When the state of California, which led the nation into caution, tells medical staff who tested positive to return to work if they are asymptomatic, things have changed.
When you listen to NPR’s “On Point” podcast and hear doctors say that in the middle of the Omicron variant a wave and hospital fatigue, there are reasons for optimism and that “if you are vaccinated, you can start living your life again”, things have changed.
We are two years into a pandemic that has killed approximately 5.5 million people worldwide and changed lives in ways big and small. Last January I wrote a column suggest there was hope for a turnaround because the best medicine available – vaccine – was being pumped into the poor everywhere.
So where are we now?
I’ve been trying to figure that out and would love to give you a definitive answer. But in the future, the virus will give us a new look and we will have to adapt.
Overall, we’re in much better shape than we were two years ago. And in better shape than a year ago, when getting the vaccine was a crazy struggle to get a seat in line at a drugstore or grocery store.
“I’m very much of an optimist,” said Dr. Kimberly Shriner, an infectious disease specialist at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena.
But don’t take that as an invitation to throw a party and invite everyone you know.
“We have to be very humble in the presence of this virus,” Shriner added.
Humility is not something we saw much from national leaders in the early days of the pandemic. Even now, after more than 800,000 deaths in the US, the pandemic has been politicized and science is scorned in many quarters.
And we have unwitting influencers like Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and tennis star Novak Djokovic sending the message that no one has any responsibility towards anyone else.
It is shocking that at this point we have to keep repeating the obvious.
“Those who have been vaccinated and given a boost are highly protected from serious illness and death,” said Dr. Robert Kim-Farley of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.
The vaccine does not prevent infection, just as the flu vaccine does not necessarily prevent you from getting the flu. But you’ll probably have it easier.
Another important step forward is the roll-out of a COVID-19 treatment drug called Paxlovid, which Kim-Farley called a game-changer. Used quickly, he said, “there’s an 88% reduction in hospitalization and death.”
We also now have a rapid antigen test, and “it didn’t exist a year ago,” Kim-Farley said. But we need many more to know if we are contagious to others.
The LA Unified School District’s decision to reopen schools sparked more than a bit of chaos this week, with 62,000 students and staff after a positive test. The district reported about 135,000 student absences on Tuesday.
But Kim-Farley approved the decision to reopen.
“We know that children suffer when they are not in the classroom, and distance learning, while better than nothing, is not a good alternative to being in the classroom,” Kim-Farley said. “We also have new tools in our hands for students, including the vaccines we can give them now.”
If schools everywhere can do more weekly tests and act quickly to improve ventilation and air filtration systems, Kim-Farley said, the risks will be further minimized.
As for the state telling health professionals who test positive but are asymptomatic: keep working, that’s not a risk-free option. Much like reopening schools, it’s a less-of-the-harm calibration. The wave of Omicron and the rush to hospitals by patients who are mostly unvaccinated have devastated the front lines.
“We have some infected employees, but we’re not quite there yet to bring people back who are infected,” Huntington’s Shriner said.
Her hospital is busy at the moment, with about 100 COVID-19 patients. When it comes to where the patient’s life is at stake, Shriner said, coronavirus-positive asymptomatic staffers will be called in.
“If you need their expertise to save a life, bring them back,” she said.
She added that if “my own loved one” was one such patient, in need of critical care, she would like the staffer to “mask herself, go in there and save a life.”
Last weekend I received a personal reminder of how frustrating and scary this time can be for anyone with medical issues, including issues unrelated to COVID-19. My daughter needed attention for a rapidly worsening infection and we had to gauge whether going to the emergency room in the midst of a COVID-19 wave was more risky, or waiting a day and trying to see her regular doctor.
We went to the emergency room, where she was treated and discharged with a prescription. Two nights later, with another shock, we thought about going back to the emergency room, but a staff member said the hospital had been overrun.
Going to the emergency room should be a last resort and we didn’t want to burden seriously ill patients or staff. But I’m not going to pretend I wasn’t angry on behalf of everyone whose access to care is being compromised because the system is overloaded by unvaccinated hordes.
If I let my mind go to the darkest places, I’m afraid that because so much of the world hasn’t been vaccinated, we might very well see one variant after another around the world, and we won’t know if the next one is the most deadly will be yet. I am also concerned about the continued attack on public health protocols and the defamation of experts.
Kim-Farley called the virus “an outside attack on humanity” and he is despairing of how politicized, “aggressive anti-science messages” have crushed an opportunity for the country and the world to unite against the threat. In a healthier atmosphere, he said, we would celebrate the fact that a Republican president acted quickly to develop a vaccine and his Democratic successor acted quickly to make it available to everyone.
When I spoke to Shriner, she had just checked patients at Huntington’s “long COVID” clinic.
“Our youngest patient is 26, the oldest is in her 70s,” she said, and long-term COVID — also known as post-acute sequelae of COVID — has also been seen in children. Her patients have blood clots, inflammation of the brain, heart and lungs. Some have brain fog, some got better and went back to work, some didn’t.
All the more reason to vaccinate, mask and distance yourself, and enjoy the freedoms that come with those precautions.
I asked Shriner how often she is asked by friends, family, or co-workers for advice on the do’s and don’ts. Every day, she said, and she tells people to pretend they have 10 risk cards.
“You have to decide if you want to use one of those cards,” she said when I asked if I could eat in the parking lot of a restaurant near her hospital.
I told her I can’t believe how many times I’ve watched a ball game on TV and noticed that most of the spectators aren’t masked. Even with an offside, is that safe?
“If you want to attend a football or baseball game, ask if you want to issue a risk card there,” Shriner said. “Travel is very dangerous right now, but some people have to do it. If you have a loved one who is in bad shape, maybe you should use a card for that.”
When she walks her dog outside, Shriner told me, she drops her mask. But if someone comes close, she pulls it back up.
“I’m not from the ‘everyone gets it in school.’ I don’t want to get it. It doesn’t look nice,” Shriner said. because we have overcome all kinds of obstacles in the past, this is just going to take time, patience, justice and selflessness.”
So maybe you can breathe a little easier than early 2020 or 2021.
But don’t let your guard down just yet.