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Whatever Passes for “Normal” Amid COVID Is About to Take Yet Another Hard Turn

In 15 states, patients with confirmed or suspected COVID are already taking up more ICU beds than they were a year ago.

Children between the ages of 5 and 11 years old, who are part of the Hospital for Sick Children, are some of the first of that age group to get vaccinated for COVID-19 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre in Toronto, Canada, on November 23, 2021.

The line of cars in the lot behind the hospital last Saturday was as straight as a rank of Marine Corps cadets. After a fashion, the line turned left into a little foursquare tent city bustling with masked nurses packing potent needles. This was very big stuff: I was there for my Pfizer booster, but of far more importance was the 8-year-old girl bouncing around in the passenger seat beside me.

My daughter was there to get her first COVID vaccination, and her elation was tempered only by her atavistic terror of needles proffered by white lab coats. After this, I kept telling her, after this and then a second one, and then two more weeks, she would finally be able to face this monster on some sort of equal footing. Nearly two years of fear, hers and mine for her, was about to meet some active resistance that involved more than masks and staying away from people.

She watched as I took my shot — it really is a nothing needle, especially compared to the annual flu shot, which felt this year like they administered it with a hollowed-out aluminum baseball bat — and then she got hers with barely a wince, and in a back room of my mind I heard old Levon Helm singing Dylan at the top of his nicotine lungs: “Yes, it sure has been a long, hard climb…”

“It’s not over,” I told her, after we had a little celebratory dance party during the obligatory 15-minute wait before departing. COVID will probably never be over, not after Trump and his pals messed it all up so badly (How she scowls at the mention of the detested name!), so we still have to be careful… but these shots we’re getting are a really big deal, and they will absolutely help us all keep safe. As she listened, a grim light that had been in her eyes since the month before her sixth birthday winked out, she smiled down at the new Band-Aid on her bicep, and the moment for me was joy.

Miles to go before we sleep, which makes this another perilous winter crossing, because it seems like too many people are just done with all this COVID crap. I’m not talking about the Trump followers who refuse to take the shot because they absurdly believe that Bill Gates put tentacled microchips into the serum so Satan could track their glow. Those folks are on their own little boat ride over the falls, and there appears to be nothing anyone can do for them except wave.

I mean the folks who have spent the last two years swaddled in vigilance, who put their trust in science and had it rewarded with these vaccines, only to have the effectiveness of the vaccines thwarted as the Delta variant emerged and as case rates rose among dead-enders who see tyranny in a swatch of cloth. A recent survey found that 74 percent of Americans believe their lives have returned to “normal.” Of those surveyed, only 15 percent said their lives had “never stopped being normal,” so that 74 percent includes a great many people who should probably know better, but are just exhausted.

Whatever is passing for “normal” these days is about to take yet another hard turn as the cold descends, if history and current infection rates are any indication. The daily number of new infections stands just below 95,000 cases, a 25 percent increase over the last 14 days. The daily hospitalization rate is above 50,000 cases, a 9 percent increase. There are still more than 1,000 COVID deaths a day, and now Thanksgiving — indeed, the weeks-long holiday season of travel and gatherings — is upon us.

“The latest U.S. Covid-19 wave is taking its toll on some states’ intensive-care units,” reports Bloomberg, “with several parts of the country seeing outbreaks that are as bad as ever. In 15 states, patients with confirmed or suspected Covid are taking up more ICU beds than a year earlier, according to Department of Health and Human Services data. Colorado, Minnesota and Michigan have 41 percent, 37 percent and 34 percent of ICU beds occupied by Covid-19 patients, respectively, the data show.”

Here in New England, where the winter cold tends to get a head start, COVID has been flexing ominously. The seven-day average of new cases in Connecticut is up a whopping 117 percent, and is up 83 percent in Massachusetts. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed an emergency declaration this week ordering some hospitals to delay non-essential procedures, due to staffing shortages caused by this latest COVID surge.

And still the country remains only 59 percent vaccinated, even as all available data show how remarkably effective the vaccines are at protecting people from the worst elements of COVID.

“In Minnesota, which publishes detailed COVID data, the death rate for fully vaccinated people under 50 during the Delta surge this year was 0.0 per 100,000 — meaning, so few people died that the rate rounds to zero,” reports The New York Times. “Washington State is another place that publishes statistics by age and vaccination status. In its most recent report, Washington did not even include a death rate for fully vaccinated residents under 65. It was too low to be meaningful.”

President Biden’s poll numbers have been taking a slow but steady beating ever since he declared COVID all but over this past summer, only to have the Delta variant run up his suit leg and take a dump on his tie. His administration is pushing hard to enact strict workplace mandates for vaccinations, more than 90 percent of all federal workers and military service members have received at least one dose, and the administration has purchased 10 million pills of Paxlovid, Pfizer’s potentially game-changing new anti-COVID medication, with more surely to come if the meds work as advertised. Administration experts continue to bang the drum for mass vaccinations and booster shots.

For all that, Biden’s approval rate still suffers, in part because he came into office on the promise that he would stamp this pestilence out. Due to a number of factors, that has not yet happened, and another grueling winter looms. “Joe Biden has now been president for around half of the duration of the pandemic,” writes Janan Ganesh of The Financial Times. “He was elected in large part to contain it. His failure to do so is the central fact of his presidency.”

A Lizzo song came on the radio as my daughter and I pulled out of the hospital parking lot in search of some food, and changes were made to the lyrics on the fly: “We don’t want you anymore,” my daughter sang, “so march that COVID out the door!” For a moment, her laughter in the Saturday morning sunlight blew all of it — Trump, Biden, COVID, anti-vaxxers, the living and the dead, the whole stinking mess and every second of time lost to it — far out to sea. It came back as soon as I saw how crowded the breakfast joint was, and we decided to eat at home.

Stout hearts. Not finished yet.

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