Two grueling years later, the world treads cautiously

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Debora Aberastegui holds the hands of her father Pedro Aberastegui through a plastic sleeve at the Reminiscencias seniors’ residence in Tandil, Argentina, Monday, April 5, 2021. Residents here do not have physical contact with their families or leave the residence due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, but stay active with group activities within the facility. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

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With the number of COVID-19 cases plummeting, Emily Safrin did something she hadn’t done since the pandemic began two years ago: she put her fears aside and went to a concert.

The fully vaccinated and boosted restaurant waiter planned to keep his mask on, but as reggaeton star Bad Bunny took the stage and the crowd’s energy soared, she ripped it off. Shortly after, she was walking unmasked in a trendy Portland neighborhood with friends.

Two years after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, changing the world overnight, relief and hope are returning after a long and dark period of loss, fear and deep uncertainty about the future.

“Everyone was supposed to be vaccinated or test negative, and I said, ‘What the hell, I’m just going to live my life,'” Safrin said of his concert experience. “It was overwhelming, to be honest, but it was also great to be able to feel a bit normal again.”

The world is finally emerging from a brutal winter period dominated by the highly contagious omicron variant, bringing a sense of relief on the second anniversary of the start of the pandemic.

It was on March 11, 2020 that the WHO issued its statement, underlining the seriousness of the threat faced by a virus which, by that time, had wreaked havoc mainly in Italy and China. The United States had 38 confirmed coronavirus deaths and 1,300 cases nationwide as of that date, but the reality was starting to set in: Stocks crashed, classrooms started closing, and people started to put on masks. Within hours, the NBA was canceling games, Chicago’s massive St. Patrick’s Day parade was scuttled, and late-night comedians began filming from empty studios — or even their homes.

Since then, more than 6 million people have died worldwide, nearly a million in the United States Millions have been laid off, students have endured three school years of disruption. The emergence of the vaccine in December 2021 saved countless lives, but political divisions, wavering and inequities in health systems prevented millions of people around the world from getting vaccinated, prolonging the pandemic.

The situation is improving, however.

Hospitalizations of people with COVID-19 have fallen 80% in the past six weeks in the United States since a pandemic peak in mid-January, falling to the lowest levels since July 2021, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of cases also followed the same trend line towards the lowest number since last summer. Even the death count, which typically lags cases and hospitalizations, has slowed significantly over the past month.

In its latest pandemic report, the WHO said infections and deaths were down worldwide, with only one region – the Western Pacific – recording an increase in cases. The Middle East and Africa have seen cases fall by 46% and 40%, respectively.

Another bright spot: The omicron wave and vaccinations have left enough people protected from the coronavirus that future peaks will likely require far less disruption to society, experts say.

Nowhere is the shift of the pandemic more apparent than in hospitals across the country, where intensive care units were overflowing with desperately ill patients just months ago.

Julie Kim, chief nursing officer at Providence St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, Calif., is emotional as she recalls the darkest days of the pandemic when doctors and nurses worked around the clock and didn’t come home them because they were afraid to bring the virus back with them.

At one point during the summer 2020 peak, there were 250 COVID-19 patients in the licensed hospital for 320 beds and the hospital had to use offices for overflow bed space.

The pandemic has eased to the point that on Tuesday there were only four COVID-19 patients in the hospital, Kim said, and medical staff feel better prepared to treat the disease with the knowledge gained in those darkest days. Still, many are traumatized by the raw memories of the past two years and will never be the same again, she said.

“It’s hard to use the word ‘normal,’ because I don’t think we’ll ever go back to a pre-COVID state. We’re adapting and moving on,” Kim said. “It’s impacted a lot of us. Some people are moving on and some people are still struggling to deal with it all.

Mask mandates, vaccine requirements and other COVID-19 measures are being eliminated everywhere. The last statewide mask mandate in the United States, in Hawaii, will end in two weeks.

But health experts also urge caution.

Dr. Albert Ko, an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health, said it was certainly good news that the United States appeared to be at the end of a peak. But he cautioned against declaring victory, especially with the potential for another variant lurking around the corner.

“We have new variants emerging and these new variants are fueling big waves, epidemic waves,” Ko said. “The big question is, are they going to be as mild or less severe as the omicron? potentially more severe? Unfortunately, I cannot predict that.”

In Portland, people are returning to movie theaters, concerts and gymnasiums after a long, dark winter and bars and restaurants are filling up again. Safrin said many customers tell him it’s the first time they’ve dined inside in months.

Kalani Pa, who owns an Anytime Fitness franchise with his wife in suburban Portland, said the past two years have nearly driven him out of business — but with Oregon’s mask mandate ending on Friday, his small gym sports suddenly comes to life. The franchise signed three new members in a single day this week and a cafe opened this week next to the gym in a space that had been vacant for months, increasing foot traffic.

“Sometimes things have to get worse before they get better,” Pa said before rushing to show off a new member.

Demand for testing is also down.

Jaclyn Chavira recalls the fear on people’s faces as they lined up in their thousands in Los Angeles to be tested during the late 2020 surge, which sparked an astonishing 250,000 infections and more than 3,000 deaths from day across the United States at its strongest.

Infections spiraled out of control for weeks and on some days the line of cars at the Dodger Stadium test site, one of the largest in the nation, stretched nearly two miles.

At the height of the omicron surge, Chavira’s nonprofit called CORE was performing 94,000 tests per week at 10 sites in Los Angeles County. Last week they conducted about 3,400 and most were for work or travel needs — not because the person was sick, she said.

“You can feel the relief,” Chavira said.

However, not everyone is ready to dive back in. Many remember last year when mask rules eased and COVID-19 seemed to loosen its grip only to come back strong as the delta and omicron variants took hold.

Amber Pierce, who works at a Portland restaurant and bar, was out of work for nearly a year due to COVID-related layoffs and narrowly avoided infection herself when the virus swept through her workplace. A regular customer died during the peak this winter, she said.

She always wears a mask even outside and was eating pizza outside one recent day only because her brother was visiting her for the first time in over a year.

“I’m going to make sure there’s no rush once those masks come off and everyone starts to, you know, feel comfortable,” she said, applying a hand sanitizer.

“It’s always the anxiety,” she said. “Either way, it’s going to hit you whether you get really sick or not.”

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Tang reported from Phoenix, Arizona. Weber reported from Los Angeles.

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Follow Gillian Flaccus on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/gflaccus



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Sandy A. Greer