COVID-19: A look back at US successes and failures

On the third anniversary of the declaration of COVID-19 as a global pandemic, public health experts can point to clear cases where the United States has successfully fended off the virus and others where it has failed. .

Even as the virus continues to spread, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows weekly cases, hospitalizations and deaths are down, and the country has survived its first winter since the pandemic began. without a real winter wave.

Public health experts said while the U.S. government and federal health agencies have been successful in many ways — including rolling out vaccines and home testing — there are also lessons to be learned from the mixed messaging.

“I think it’s important to remember that we lost millions and millions of lives and we don’t forget everything we learned,” said Dr Priya Sampathkumar, professor of medicine and head of the infection control at the Mayo Clinic. told ABC News. “So learning is one thing, but retaining that memory and being ready to come together to prevent another pandemic is really important.”

Rapid deployment of vaccines

Experts agree that the development and deployment of COVID-19 vaccines is one of the country’s greatest successes.

In April 2020, the Trump administration launched “Operation Warp Speed” to accelerate the development and production of the COVID-19 vaccine, providing unlimited funding and other resources to pharmaceutical companies.

Vials labeled “Moderna, Johnson&Johnson, Pfizer – Biontech coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine” are seen in this illustrative photo taken May 2, 2021.

Dado Ruvic/Reuters, FILE

The majority of vaccines, from the early stages of academic research to hitting the market, typically take 10 years or more to become available, experts said. However, the researchers were able to simultaneously perform multiple steps usually done in a linear fashion, allowing companies to obtain US Food and Drug Administration clearance and scale up production without reducing vaccine safety requirements.

“It really opened up a new kind of new vaccine era,” said Dr. John Brownstein, epidemiologist and chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital and ABC News contributor. “We recognized that we could develop and deploy a vaccine at a reasonably rapid pace, from the identification of a new virus to the first real prototype.”

“For the first time, we recognize that there are many places that can be parallel processes, so the manufacturing process and regulatory approval can happen relatively simultaneously,” he added.

Sampathkumar said another reason vaccines could be developed so quickly is because the genome sequence, or genetic makeup, of the virus was uploaded quickly into global databases.

“We really very quickly sequenced the virus from the first case reported in China at the end of December to about seven weeks later, we have the complete sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which was a step towards making a vaccine,” she said. . “For most previous viral outbreaks, it took six to 18 months to do so, so this very first step happened so quickly and paved the way for vaccine development.”

In addition, the relatively new technology of messenger RNA, or mRNA, has been used. While most vaccines use a weakened or inactivated virus to stimulate an immune response, mRNA vaccines teach the body how to make proteins that can trigger an immune response and fight infection.

Because researchers can design mRNA vaccines faster than they can produce the live or weakened pathogens needed for a traditional vaccine, mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 have been rapidly developed, tested, mass-produced and delivered to the general population, preventing millions of hospitalizations and deaths. , according to the analyses.

At-home COVID tests available for everyone

Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests are considered the “gold standard” for COVID-19 testing. They look for the genetic material of the virus and are considered very precise.

PHOTO: FILE - A general view of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta, September 30, 2014.

A general view of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta, September 30, 2014.

Tami Chappell/Reuters, FILE

However, at the start of the pandemic, they had a very long turnaround time because samples had to be sent to a lab and analyzed by a medical professional.

Companies quickly began to ramp up production of rapid home antigen tests, which check for antigens or proteins on the surface of the virus.

Although less accurate than PCR tests, these rapid tests are still considered fairly accurate when used in people with symptoms of infection and can provide results in 15 minutes or less.

Sampathkumar said the widespread use of home testing was “very amazing” because it was, for many Americans, the first time they could test themselves at home for a virus, compared to testing for the flu and strep tests that are often done at doctor’s offices, urgent care centers or hospitals.

“When you think about it, when you feel sick or when you are contagious to others, it is the worst possible time to expect you to go to a crowded clinic or hospital,” he said. she stated.

Last winter, the Biden administration launched a website where Americans could request free rapid home COVID tests delivered to their doorsteps.

“Making the tests available to anyone living in the United States, you can order the tests and have them delivered to your home for free was also a big step forward,” Sampathkumar said.

Mixed messaging

Experts say public health officials have made missteps in having mixed messages about preventative measures like masking.

In February and March 2020, officials including then-surgeon general Dr. Jerome Adams and Dr. Anthony Fauci downplayed the need for the general public to wear masks.

However, in early April, the CDC changed its guidelines and recommended that everyone wear a mask or face covering.

While reports suggest the CDC and other officials delayed recommending face coverings because they feared a run on masks and other PPE supplies for healthcare workers, experts say that means also that the agencies did not provide the clear message that the public needed.

“I think these kinds of mixed messages have created a huge space for doubt, a huge space for skepticism among the public,” said Dr. Richard Keller, professor in the department of medical history and bioethics at the faculty of Medicine and Public Health from the University of Wisconsin. told ABC News. “It created levels of uncertainty that were really unnecessary and deep and ultimately became harmful.”

Experts say it’s normal for their understanding of a virus to evolve as more information is learned, but they noted that public health officials have not done a good job of communicating this process to the audience.

“That was really highlighted by the pandemic: our inability to communicate the nuance of science as science evolved,” Brownstein said. “It was really our Achilles’ heel because we weren’t able to explain to the public that a recommendation could change as the science evolved.”

People view COVID-19 deaths as victims’ fault

Keller said that as the pandemic continued, many Americans came to view COVID-19 deaths as the fault of the victims and lost a sense of compassion.

Part of that may be the fault of public health messaging, including the Biden administration calling it a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” and pointing out how more likely people are to die from COVID if they don’t get it. not vaccinate.

According to the most recent estimates from the CDC, people who are up to date with their vaccines have a risk of death almost ten times lower than that of an unvaccinated person. Other risk factors include lower socioeconomic status and/or underlying medical conditions such as diabetes and hypertension.

PHOTO: FILE - People visit the 'In America: Remember' public art installation near the Washington Monument on the National Mall, September 18, 2021 in Washington, DC.

People visit the ‘In America: Remember’ public art installation near the Washington Monument on the National Mall, September 18, 2021 in Washington, DC.

Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images, FILE

“Calling this a ‘pandemic in the unvaccinated’ suggests that people who die are dying because it’s their fault,” Keller said. “I think it’s a harmful message because it does several things.”

“It suggests that people are responsible for their own misfortune. It also misrepresents the true nature of mortality statistics by indicating where people are dying and what their circumstances are,” he added.

ABC News

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