Dr. Thomas K. Lew
Thursday marks the first anniversary of when the greatest of nations was shut down by the smallest of viruses. March 11, 2020, was the day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, cases were rising within our borders,and then-President Donald Trump could no longer credibly argue that the novel coronavirus would “magically disappear.”
At that time, there were roughly 1,200 cases in the USA and 40 deaths. One year from hell later and we have almost 30 million known infections and have lost more than 526,000 lives. The end is finally in sight, but it shouldn’t have taken us half a million dead mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers to get there. It is worth reflecting on the lessons we learned in the past 12 months, and ensure we put them into action before the next pandemic arrives. In particular, we need to trust science again and fill the gaps in our national public health policies.
It shouldn’t have taken half a million lives to learn
Over the past 12 months, I have been a front-line physician, attending to hospitalized COVID-19 patients struggling to breathe. My fellow doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists and hospital staff have witnessed tragedy after tragedy as we learned more about this lethal infection. And we have learned quite a bit more in how to treat and stop the spread of this virus.
What we did not anticipate is that the public would not believe us. While we held the hands of those dying alone in their hospital rooms, misinformation campaigns were being mounted against wearing masks, even arguing it was dangerous from carbon dioxide buildup. While we were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of sick people and paralyzed with fear that we could bring the virus home to our families, large parties and weddings became superspreader events.
To be sure, the majority of people listened to public health recommendations, but there was and still is a sizable number of people who do not trust any information from mainstream medical experts, such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Scientists had suddenly become the enemy for advocating research-backed recommendations and denouncing false cures, such as hydroxychloroquine. I personally still get hate mail for writing that the data shows this medication does not work for COVID-19 infections. Why? Somehow, people (including former President Trump) have made science political, and hating on Fauci and masks became a partisan litmus test.
It is vitally important that politics stays out of public health, especially during emergencies, and that we let scientists just be scientists. That messaging should come from the top and guide governmental messaging. We as the public need to get our information from trusted, nonpartisan, mainstream sources. We also need to be vocal about fighting fake information and conspiracy theories. This is more important than ever as we continue the single largest vaccine campaign in history. It should not have taken over 526,000 lives to learn this lesson.
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But the lives lost from the widespread and insidious mistrust of sound science were compounded by deeply flawed national public health policies. Over the past 365 days, there has never been a federal mask mandate. There was very little guidance on testing and support for distribution of personal protective equipment. Confusion continues on any national plan for school reopenings.
Essentially, since March 2020 and most especially during the Trump administration, there has been little in the way of federal leadership on such pandemic precautionary policies. This left state and local governments to cobble together their own disparate strategies and even compete for lifesaving equipment and PPE. There were no consistent policies among states, with mandates ranging from complete shutdowns to total openness with no need for masking.
Learn the lessons so we’re ready for next pandemic
Trump once said he took “no responsibility” for many of these failures (i.e. the mounting deaths and deficiencies in testing distribution), but it is exactly the federal government’s responsibility to protect its citizens during such an emergency through a cohesive and organized plan. Again, it should not have taken more than 526,000 lives to learn this lesson.
Moving forward, now is the time to create a national infrastructure for pandemic responses, ensure coherent data-driven messaging, and investigate how the failures of the previous year occurred. Not only was the death toll unimaginably high, but systemic inequities placed a significant mortality burden on Black and brown citizens. These failings need to be fixed, and we need to hold our elected officials accountable in taking this on.
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The coming months look significantly brighter. COVID-19 deaths are falling while vaccine administration increases. Restaurants, museums and even schools are opening up. People are planning travel, and grandparents are finally reuniting with their grandchildren. Even in my hospital, the medicine wards are no longer filled with patients gasping for breath, and the specter of an overwhelmed ICU is vanishing. But it took 52 long weeks and over half a million lives to get here, many of which were preventable.
This nation often has a short memory, but we cannot forget what we learned only months ago. We need to trust science and medical experts, aggressively fight misinformation, and have strong national leadership in public health emergencies. On this anniversary of the start of the pandemic, we must reflect on those lessons from this dark year so that we never go back.
Thomas K. Lew, MD, is an assistant clinical professor of Medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine and an attending physician of Hospital Medicine at Stanford Health Care – ValleyCare. All expressed opinions are his own. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasLewMD