A First-of-the-Year Report on COVID

By Lance Chilton

“Now is the winter of our discontent,” Richard III soliloquizes in Shakespeare’s play named after him. We might say the same if we looked at the national statistics for the last few days: The US is seeing higher COVID case counts than ever, when we had hoped to celebrate the end of this terrible pandemic. But it is premature to celebrate; many more of our fellow citizens will suffer and some more will die before we are liberated from our masked and socially distanced situation.

The full effect of the omicron variant is still to be felt in New Mexico, though it has been very evident in many parts of the US: A remarkable 201% increase in daily COVID case counts over the past 14 days has brought us to the highest level ever. And that may only be the tip of the wintery iceberg, since many people are using home tests that don’t get reported. But using the available data, Washington DC has seen a 485% increase, New York is up 301%, and Florida is up 985% in average daily case counts, compared to just 2 weeks ago. Maybe it’s a sign of the “glorious summer” that Richard III spoke about that New Mexico went up just 1% during that period, according to the New York Times’ New Year’s Day numbers. It’s certainly “glorious” that hospitalizations in our state are down 23%.

But there’s not much omicron here yet, and our numbers are likely to rise again when it arrives. We’re doing pretty well on immunizing New Mexicans against COVID, though we’re still stuck at around 75% fully immunized, with very little movement among those resistant to the idea of being vaccinated. Answering COVID line phone calls a few days ago, I was pleased to sign up one man for his first vaccine dose (he needed to be immunized to apply for a job) and disheartened by a Carlsbad interlocutor hanging up on me when I said there was no booster dose available for her in Eddy County until next week. “The government is trying to control our lives,” she said, as she slammed down the phone.

There is some good news. Several months ago, I made note of the fact that the number of deaths in the US due to the coronavirus had surpassed our total death toll from the 1918-1920 “Spanish flu” pandemic. While that was true, and deaths have continued to mount to over 825,000, the death rate (number of deaths per million inhabitants) is still far below that of the early 20th century pandemic. It’s estimated that at least 50 million people died around the world then, and the 675,000 who died in the US represented a rate of 6370 per million. Now, with more than three times the 1920 population, the US has suffered about 2490 deaths per million from COVID. That puts the current pandemic in third place–AIDS in the 1980s caused about 3090 deaths per million.

For COVID to move up to the highest death rate among pandemics experienced in the US, we would have to see another 1.3 million deaths due to the disease, and no one is predicting that. We have the means to control it well short of a total of 2.1 million deaths–with social distancing, masks, vaccines, and a science-based governmental approach. But we need to stick to these approaches to get through the winter of our discontent and emerge into glorious summer.

If you’d like to learn more about COVID and previous pandemics/epidemics, I’d recommend these sources: John Barry’s The Great Influenza, describing the 1918-1920 influenza pandemic; Paul Farmer’s Fevers, Feuds and Diamonds about the West Africa Ebola epidemic, David Parsons’ COVID-19: Anatomy of a Pandemic,  and/or Michael Osterholm’s weekly podcasts (available at https://www.cidrap.umn.edu/covid-19/podcasts-webinars) about the current unfinished COVID story.