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latest news Column: Two years on, COVID-19 is still a threat, but there is reason to be hopeful

When the country’s second-largest school district reopens despite tens of thousands of positive coronavirus tests among students and staff, things changed.

When the state of California, which has led the nation to be cautious, told medical staff who tested positive to return to work if they are asymptomatic, things changed.

When you listen to NPR’s “On Point” podcast and hear doctors say that amid the wave of Omicron variants and hospital fatigue, there is reason to be optimistic and that “if you’re vaccinated , you can start living your life again ”, things have changed.

For two years we have been in a pandemic that has killed an estimated 5.5 million people around the world and changed lives in ways big and small. Last January I wrote a column suggesting that there was hope for a turnaround because the best drug available – the vaccine – was being pumped all over the place.

So where are we now?

I have tried to understand this and I would like to give you a definitive answer. But in the future, the virus is going to give us a new look and we will have to adapt.

Overall, we are in much better shape than two years ago. And in better shape than a year ago, when getting the vaccine involved a race to find a place in the queue at a pharmacy or supermarket.

“I am very optimistic,” said Dr Kimberly Shriner, infectious disease specialist at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena.

But don’t take this as an invitation to throw a party and invite everyone you know.

“We have to be very humble in the presence of this virus,” added Shriner.

Humility is not something we saw a lot from national leaders at the start of the pandemic. Even now, after more than 800,000 deaths in the United States, in many neighborhoods, the pandemic is politicized and science looked down upon.

And we have ignorant influencers like Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and tennis star Novak Djokovic spreading the message that no one has a responsibility to anyone else.

It is shocking that at this point we have to keep repeating the obvious.

“Those who are vaccinated and boosted are highly protected against serious illness and death,” said Dr. Robert Kim-Farley of the Fielding School of Public Health at UCLA.

The vaccine does not prevent infection, just as the flu shot does not necessarily prevent you from getting the flu. But you will probably have an easier time.

Another key breakthrough is the rollout of a COVID-19 treatment drug called Paxlovid, which Kim-Farley called groundbreaking. Used quickly, he said, “there is an 88% reduction in hospitalizations and deaths.”

We also now have a rapid antigen test, and “that didn’t exist a year ago,” Kim-Farley said. But we need a lot more of them to help us know if we are contagious to others.

The LA Unified School District’s decision to reopen schools has led to more than a little chaos this week, with 62,000 students and staff absent after testing positive. The district reported about 135,000 student absences on Tuesday.

But Kim-Farley approved the decision to reopen.

“We know kids suffer if they’re not in class, and distance learning, while better than nothing, isn’t a great substitute for being in the classroom,” Kim-Farley said. “We also have new tools in our hands for students, including the vaccines that we are now able to give them.”

If schools around the world can perform more weekly tests and can act quickly to improve ventilation and air filtration systems, Kim-Farley said, the risks will be further minimized.

As for the state telling healthcare workers who test positive but asymptomatic to stay on the job, that’s not a risk-free option. Like the reopening of schools, it is a calibration of the lesser evil. The Omicron wave and the rush to hospitals, by mostly unvaccinated patients, have ravaged the front lines.

“We have infected staff, but we haven’t reached the point of bringing back infected people,” the Huntington Shriner said.

His hospital is busy right now, with around 100 COVID-19 patients. If this happens where the lives of patients are at stake, Shriner said, asymptomatic staff members who are positive for the coronavirus will be called in.

“If you need their expertise to save a life, you bring them back,” she said.

She added that if “my own loved one” was such a patient, in need of intensive care, she would want the staff member to “hide, go in there and save a life”.

Last weekend I received a personal reminder how frustrating and frightening 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 needed to assess whether it was more risky to go to the emergency room in the middle of a COVID-19 wave, or to wait a day and try to see your regular doctor.

We went to the emergency room, where she was treated and released with a prescription. Two nights later, with another scare, we thought about going back to the ER, but a staff member said the hospital was overwhelmed.

Going to the emergency room should be a last resort, and we didn’t want to overburden critically ill patients or staff. But I’m not going to pretend I wasn’t angry on behalf of all those whose access to care is compromised because the system is overloaded with hordes of unvaccinated people.

If I let my mind go to the darkest places, I’m afraid that because much of the world is unvaccinated, we might just see one variant after another circling the globe, and we won’t know. not if the next one will be the deadliest yet. I am also concerned about the continued attack on public health protocols and the defamation of experts.

Kim-Farley has called the virus “an outward attack on humanity” and he despairs of how politicized and “aggressive anti-science” messages have crushed an opportunity for the country and the world to unite against it. threatens. In a healthier atmosphere, he said, we would celebrate that a Republican president moved quickly to develop a vaccine and his Democratic successor moved quickly to make it available to everyone.

When I spoke to Shriner, she had just checked in on patients at the Huntington ‘long COVID’ clinic.

“Our youngest patient is 26, the oldest is 70,” she said, and long COVID – also known as post-acute COVID sequelae – has also been seen in children. His patients have blood clots, inflammation of the brain, heart and lungs. Some have brain fog, some have improved and returned to work, some do not.

All the more reason to vaccinate, mask and move away, and to take advantage of the freedoms that accompany these precautions.

I asked Shriner how often his friends, family, or coworkers asked him for advice on dos 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 these cards,” she said when I asked her if I should eat in the tent in the parking lot of a restaurant near her hospital.

I told him I can’t believe how many times I have watched a football game on TV and noticed that most of the spectators are not masked. Even at an outdoor game, is it safe?

“If you want to go to a football or a baseball game, you have to ask if this is where you want to spend a risk card,” Shriner said. “Traveling at this time is very dangerous, but some people have to. If you have a loved one who is ill, you may need to use a card for this.

If she’s outside walking her dog, Shriner told me, she lets go of her mask. But if someone approaches, she goes upstairs.

“I’m not from the ‘everyone’s gonna have it in school’. I don’t want to have it. It doesn’t sound like fun, ”Shriner said. “I’m not going to be locked up, but I’m going to be reasonable. … I think we can be optimistic because we have overcome all kinds of obstacles in the past. It’s just going to take time, patience, fairness, and selflessness.

So maybe you can breathe a little easier than in early 2020 or 2021.

But don’t let your guard down yet.

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