Next Time, Defend the Health-Care Workers

November 2021

By Dennis Boone

Patients weren’t the pandemic’s only victims. Smarter policies could help protect both groups.

Ever hear of Katelyn Jetelina? I expect not, but if you have, you’re pretty well-read. Hats off to you. And if so, perhaps you saw the Texas physician’s on-line commentary last month, marking the 18-month anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic by reviewing how the world—more precisely, the U.S.—got into the mess it did.

She’s internationally recognized in her field as an epidemiologist, so she knows a thing or two about how a virus behaves. And, perhaps, how a society should behave in response. As a nation, we did some things right. But not nearly enough. A lot of people paid a very high price for a great many things we did wrong.

Jetelina correctly points out that America’s health-care providers stood tall during the challenge, incurring physical, emotional and psychological pain and exhaustion of the spirit. How could they not have suffered? They’d been witness to a national toll of death through that Sept. 11 milestone date of nearly 682,000 (now more than 720,000). That’s easily more than this country lost in military and civilian deaths combined during the Civil War (and over a four- year period, not 18 months).

It’s hard to fathom such a human toll without feeling the anger rise over the path we took to populate that graveyard.

As Jetelina notes, heading into the pandemic, the nation lacked the public-health infrastructure to deal with a calamity of that magnitude. Truth be told, it still does, despite the best efforts of disaggregated efforts by the likes of Johns Hopkins University and a few other Web sites that attempted to provide metrics to help manage the spread.

She goes on to assess some of the successes with a record-shattering timetable for developing vaccines, local health department efforts to develop tracing and testing protocols with little notice, the massive amounts of peer-reviewed research that poured in from all corners of the planet. And she correctly recognized the out-sized contributions of health-care providers, as many has half of whom would report a psychological condition—anxiety and depression, primarily—over the course of the crisis.

What she doesn’t do in her piece is assign some blame. So let’s get to that: Right out of the gate, with the first confirmed case on Jan. 15, 2020, the nation’s leadership failed at virtually every level. The virus itself became a political football—Trump acted rashly, Trump didn’t act fast enough—as each side of the political aisle attempted to leverage a health disaster for political gain.

What should have happened—starting the hour after that nursing home in Washington state reported its 22nd death—was a call for all-hands-on-deck to safeguard the elderly in convalescent settings. And almost immediately, it was clear that this one would strike hardest at those with at least one co-morbidity, age notwithstanding.

Eighteen months later, 75 percent of that body count came from people over 65; almost exactly half of it came from those at least 75 years old. And more than a third of it involved people who had already exceeded the average life expectancy in this country.

The big mistake was adopting a one-size-fits-all policy of restricted business activity and school closures, with most of those involved at minimal risk. In other words, we flattened the wrong curve.

By failing to unite around a common cause, by allowing the conversation to de-volve into a supposed “good information/misinformation” dynamic, by delaying new safeguards for the populations most vulnerable, we prolonged the disaster.

Topping it all off has been the fear porn, which, again, has become politicized. But it never seems to occur to the purveyors of “Death Everywhere!” that the statistics on this particular pandemic have been compounding daily for 18 months. When did you ever hear of a flu season lasting more than a year? Who stands to gain from using eight-figure case counts, as opposed to deaths and hospitalizations, as critical metrics? Why is it that no one accuses this sitting president of “blood on his hands” when 40 percent of the fatalities came during this administration—which had the benefit of a vaccine working for it?

Any honest appraisal of the way this has been managed has to recognize that, if there’s blood on the hands of anyone, it’s from a bath taken by political and executive-branch leadership across the spectrum.

For the sake of the victims yet to come—and there will be many; this isn’t going away—we need to fix a lot of processes. For the sake of the health-care workers so strained by providing the necessary care for the sick, we need to start making those fixes today.

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