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The Greatest Trick COVID Ever Pulled Was Convincing the World It Didn’t Exist

The push to rose-color even the grimmest data stumbles over immunocompromised people like me.

A COVID-19 patient is treated for respiratory issues in the ICU at Rush University Medial Center on January 31, 2022, in Chicago, Illinois.

Part of the Series

A slew of surveys came out last week, all trying to lay a finger on the pulse of top U.S. concerns. According to a FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll, inflation tops the list by a wide margin regardless of party affiliation. A Pew Research poll mirrors these results: Inflation is the largest concern by a mile. An Axios examination of the topics most searched for on the internet find the Amber Heard-Johnny Depp trial, Elon Musk and Joe Biden commanding the top three spots.

Respondents to the Pew survey put COVID-19 dead last on their list of concerns. COVID was the ninth item noted as concerning by FiveThirtyEight. COVID was also last on the Axios list. These numbers varied according to political affiliation — 59 percent of Republicans told Axios they believe the pandemic is already over — but the gist is impossible to miss.

In every meaningful way, those who have sought to downplay or dismiss the severity and threat of the COVID pandemic have achieved the rhetorical high ground, despite the fact that we are still mired in the same disease that first hit us in February 2020. It has not gone away and returned; it never left, and swells every few months whenever we decide to let our guard down because capitalism must be fed.

These priorities were mirrored in Congress on Thursday, where the Senate failed to muster 60 votes for cloture on a $48 billion bipartisan aid package aimed at helping restaurants, small business, gyms and music venues that are still struggling with the pandemic (because the goddamn pandemic isn’t over). Only five Republicans voted in favor of the bill. This came on the heels of lightning-fast bipartisan approval for $40 billion in military aid to Ukraine. It’s too bad we can’t just bomb or shoot the virus; we always have enough money for war, and the “right people” would get paid again.

Facts: 175,000 people have died from COVID in 2022. The spectacular collapse of what was already a shabby testing regimen makes it nearly impossible to tell where we stand with the virus at present, but even with inferior data collection, we are marking more than 100,000 new infections per day. “Federal health officials warned on Wednesday that a third of Americans live in areas where the threat of Covid-19 is now so high that they should consider wearing a mask in indoor public settings,” reports The New York Times. “They cited new data showing a substantial jump in both the spread of the coronavirus and hospitalizations over the past week.”

According to Eric Topol, professor of molecular medicine and Executive VP of Scripps Research, the truth of the matter is far more grim:

The real number of cases is likely at least 500,000 per day, far greater than any of the US prior waves except Omicron. The bunk that cases are not important is preposterous. They are infections that beget more cases, they beget Long Covid, they beget sickness, hospitalizations and deaths. They are also the underpinning of new variants.

Meanwhile, the CDC propagates delusional thinking that community levels are very low (as my friend Peter Hotez called the “field of greens”) while the real and important data convey that transmission is very high throughout most of the country. Not only does this further beget cases by instilling false confidence, but it is conveniently feeding the myth that the pandemic is over — precisely what everyone wants to believe.

To recap, we have a highly unfavorable picture of: (1) accelerated evolution of the virus; (2) increased immune escape of new variants; (3) progressively higher transmissibility and infectiousness; (4) substantially less protection from transmission by vaccines and boosters; (5) some reduction on vaccine/booster protection against hospitalization and death; (6) high vulnerability from infection-acquired immunity only; and (7) likelihood of more noxious new variants in the months ahead.

Why, then, does an increasing segment of the population, goaded on by a complicit media and some wildly irresponsible state and federal government agencies, seem to believe we’ve put this thing in the rear-view mirror? It can be argued that a significant portion of the population has capitulated to right-wing demagoguery on the issue, and are telling pollsters they believe it’s all over in order to signal whose “team” they are on. This brings political partisanship to the far fringes of sense, but it is a phenomenon that cannot be ignored out of hand.

Just as likely is the idea that the population, after more than two years of dealing with COVID, is simply stunned and depressed to the point of willful ignorance.

“In just two years, COVID has become the third most common cause of death in the U.S., which means that it is also the third leading cause of grief in the U.S.,” writes Ed Yong for The Atlantic. “Each American who has died of COVID has left an average of nine close relatives bereaved, creating a community of grievers larger than the population of all but 11 states. Under normal circumstances, 10 percent of bereaved people would be expected to develop prolonged grief, which is unusually intense, incapacitating, and persistent. But for COVID grievers, that proportion may be even higher, because the pandemic has ticked off many risk factors.”

Deeper than all, though, is a bleaker motivation at work. The vaccines have served the relatively healthy bulk of the population admirably, for the most part, and even those who endured “breakthrough” infections were able to weather the onslaught. This is altogether positive, but it also sets millions of people with more acute health issues into a separate, isolated place, and that isolation only grows every time someone announces the worst of the virus is over except for those who aren’t “well.”

“If someone’s death fits with population-wide trends — if they were older, chronically ill, or unvaccinated — their loss is explicable, and therefore dismissible,” Yong continues for The Atlantic. “At the other extreme, [young children] whose deaths don’t fit with population-wide trends are also dismissed as statistical outliers who inconveniently complicate accepted notions of safety.”

Put plainly, those within the population whose medical condition puts them at greater risk of COVID infection and death — I am one such — are an inconvenient pothole in the road to “All Is Well!” The hard push to rose-color the grim data stumbles over people like us. And there are millions of us; you know some of us if you are not one of us yourself. If you are one of us, you have surely noticed the brittle positive narrative as it passes you by like a highballing freight train, even as you endure the same levels of peril and fear that introduced themselves for a long stay three Februarys ago.

“White House Chief Medical Officer Anthony Fauci said last month that the ‘full-blown pandemic’ is nearly over, and we will be transitioning to a phase when individuals will make their ‘own decisions’ about risk,” wrote Elliot Kukla for Truthout in March. “As a high-risk immunocompromised person, that sounds to me like code for no longer trying to protect high-risk lives. Already, as mask mandates lift and quarantine times are shortened, the chronically sick, disabled and elderly bear increased risk. We’re stuck at home, often not even able to make it to necessary medical appointments, as public society becomes too dangerous for us.”

Not to be the bearer of bad tidings, but here is the science: It is within the bodies of the immunocompromised, along with the sufferers of “long COVID” and other inconvenient groups, that new variants have tended to find their birthing bed. The longer we are sick, the more likely it is that a new vaccine-resistant variant could emerge from one of us. It has already happened multiple times, and will happen again with increasing ferocity until the science that saved us becomes the science desperately playing catch-up in a whole new abattoir.

Our well-being, in the long and short term, is your well-being, too. Recognizing this is what they call “enlightened self-interest,” and it can be a powerful tool for good.

There are ways out of this just waiting for us to pursue. Congress abandoning funding for testing and new remedies is not one of them, nor is ignoring the ongoing plight of those who were sick before this detestable plague arrived. We cannot wish COVID away, but if we close our eyes to those who were already unwell before the pandemic and who live today in towering peril, history will remember this as the era when the so-called “greatest nation on Earth” got sicker and sicker even as it allowed hundreds of thousands of people to die because they were inconvenient to the advertising.

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