A journal of the pandemic year

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It now has been a full year since we learned of the first COVID-19 case in Monroe County. The March 11, 2020, announcement—which came the same day that the World Health Organization declared COVID a global pandemic—was followed six days later by news of the county’s first death attributed to the novel coronavirus.

The evening of the next day, March 18, I began to feel achy, a bit chilled. Over the next week and a half, at times I felt almost normal. Yet I also had stretches of a runny nose and sneezing, and my skin often seemed sensitive. Most likely a cold, or a very mild case of flu, I thought. Fortunately, no high fever, deep cough or difficulty breathing. But could I truly rule out COVID? My wife, Rose, and I had just returned from two weeks in the French Alps; it was hard not to wonder.

As I rested, hoping to feel better, I kept close track of the developments around the globe. I also began to write notes—on our recent travel, my symptoms, the latest COVID news—and think about what might lie ahead. 

For nearly a year now, I’ve continued to add to those notes. Over time, it broadened to include much more than COVID alone, but the pandemic has remained the central thread. Recently, as the one-year mark neared, I began to read my notes from the earliest days, trying to remember what it was like then, what we knew when, and how our understanding of the virus—what it would mean for our lives—grew.

What follows are excerpts, edited slightly for clarity and brevity, from my journal of this pandemic year.

__________

3.28.20

Only now can I say with reasonable confidence that I feel close to normal. … After nine days, maybe I’m done with whatever this has been. (Rose also had chills and sensitive skin, for about 36 hours.)

Which is good, because this email just arrived from the health department in Ireland:

You have been on flight EI681 on 15/03/2020 from Geneva – Dublin where you were exposed to a person who was later identified as having COVID-19 infection. …

Not sure what my reaction would have been 10 days ago. But at this point it’s basically a shrug. That’s one exposure we know of. These days, exposure is just as likely to occur at Wegmans.

In self-quarantine, there’s plenty of time to read all about the coronavirus and the economic calamity it has caused. Yet reading obsessively seems beyond pointless; it feels harmful. So, I’ve tried to check the news only a few times a day, and instead of focusing on the latest tallies of infection and death, I’ve looked for reporting and analysis that seems particularly thoughtful or insightful. 

4.3.20

The news each day, predictably, has continued to worsen. Half the world—nearly 4 billion people—are now under stay-at-home orders. Worldwide, the number of cases now tops 1 million, with more than 53,000 deaths. The U.S. by far has the most cases, 246,000, with 6,000 deaths. … In Monroe County, the tally is 390 confirmed cases and 10 deaths. As bad as these numbers are, they’re certain to be dwarfed by what’s to come—even though most people seem to be respecting the stay-at-home and social-distancing orders. It’s just simple math. 

New infections and deaths are not the only grim news, of course. The unfolding economic catastrophe is equally bad—and very likely could be much longer lasting. … In two weeks nearly 10 million people have filed for jobless benefits. Even in the Great Recession, there’d been nothing close to these increases.

4.4.20

Toilet paper might be in short supply, but not so predictions about how the coronavirus pandemic will change life forever. I’ve started to collect these articles, for future (and likely amusing) reference. I recall a column I wrote in 2003, “The future likes to play by its own rules.” It started with Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s observation: “I happily discovered that skipping predictionist stories cut my newspaper-reading time about in half.” 

4.6.20

Today’s update says Monroe County now has 543 confirmed cases, up 27 since Sunday afternoon. The deaths have increased to 26, up seven in the last 24 hours. A New York Times story based on a new study by disease modelers at the University of Texas at Austin says the likelihood that there’s a COVID-19 epidemic here are … 100 percent. Basically, any county with even a handful of cases now is likely in the midst of an epidemic. Nationwide, the death toll has surpassed 10,000.

And yet: the stock market had its best day in two weeks. The S&P was up 7 percent. Investors seem to be cheered by recent news that the outbreak could be near a peak in New York City and parts of Europe. 

4.7.20

Ortho Clinical Diagnostics’ local operation has developed an antibody test that could be in use as soon as a couple of weeks. Serologic testing could be a big step toward determining who can safely return to work, so health care providers, first responders, supermarket employees and others in similar positions should be first in line. Eventually, though, it could help us move toward “smart quarantining.”

Other than a lingering cough that kicks up a few times a day, I’ve felt well for more than a week now. I took my first bike ride of the spring along the Erie Canal. It was predictably crowded, but most people respected the need for distancing.

4.10.20

Kenneth Rogoff—a Rochester native and renowned economist—wrote a few days ago about the likely long-term economic impact of the pandemic. His view is not an optimistic one: “With each passing day, the 2008 global financial crisis increasingly looks like a mere dry run for today’s economic catastrophe.”

An interesting blog post from an expat in Chamonix. “We must stay within 1km of our home. … We can of course visit the local supermarket, the doctor, the pharmacy. We print out a page and list our home address, time of our departure, and the reason for being out of the house. The gendarmes stop people at intersections, walking in town.”

4.12.20

Easter Sunday. I read an op-ed Father James Martin wrote a few weeks ago on where is God in a pandemic. His refreshingly honest answer: We don’t know. “Christians believe that Jesus is fully divine and fully human. Yet we sometimes overlook the second part,” he wrote. “When Jesus saw a person in need, the Gospels tell us that his heart was ‘moved with pity.’ He is a model for how we are to care during this crisis: with hearts moved by pity.”

4.13.20

Last night I sent a message to my doctor’s office to ask whether serology testing for COVID-19 has begun locally. The reply arrived early this morning:

At this time we are not doing antibody testing but imagine this will become available in the future. Labs are still very busy testing actively sick patients and hospitals still on the forefront of treating those patients. Your symptoms do sound consistent with COVID-19 and I am very glad you were able to make a full recovery.

4.14.20

Some people these days want to believe that the coronavirus outbreak was caused deliberately by China in order to … well, I’m not clear about that part. Yet the idea that Chinese researchers accidently let the coronavirus loose on the world can’t be dismissed out of hand. … The question brings to mind Gina Kolata’s description in her book “Flu” of how researchers decades ago brought back samples from 1918 flu victims found in Alaskan permafrost—by commercial airliner.

4.17.20

New York’s shutdown has been extended until at least May 15, and everyone now is required to wear a face mask in public if it’s not possible to keep six feet away from others. We wore masks on Easter when we walked in Highland Park, but few others there did. 

Trump tweeted: “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” The Democratic governors in those states have imposed social distancing restrictions.

Liberate_Minnesota protest at the Governor’s Residence in St. Paul, Minnesota
(Photo: Lorie Shaull)

4.19.20

What everyone wants to know, of course, is how long before life returns to “normal”—or at least the coronavirus no longer is a serious threat. An in-depth article in the New York Times today examines that question. The experts’ view is not likely to cheer those who hope this will end soon. One chief reason is that it’s unlikely Americans (and others) will be patient enough to stick with social distancing and other suppression steps. 

4.22.20

In Monroe County, the confirmed cases now top 1,000, with 86 deaths. 

The CDC director says we’re fooling ourselves if we think the worst is surely behind us. He told the Washington Post yesterday that a second wave in autumn could be even more devastating. 

Among the unprecedented things happening these days is this: The price of oil went negative. That means that roll of toilet paper now costs more than a barrel of oil.

4.23.20

I still have not been within six feet of anyone other than Rose since returning from our trip.

4.24.20

A sad but unsurprising milestone today: The U.S. death toll from COVID-19 has reached 50,000. 

The debate over when to lift the lockdown continues. … In any cost/benefit analysis, the difficult question, of course, would be: How many deaths are acceptable? The Times tackled that a few days ago; there was no easy answer.

4.27.20

The CDC today expanded its list of COVID symptoms from the original three: fever, cough and shortness of breath. Added were chills, repeated shaking with chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat, and new loss of taste or smell. During my nine-day bout with whatever it was, I experienced at least four of the six.

A very good article in STAT recently about how in January and February many experts were in denial (or engaged in “magical thinking”) about the seriousness of the coronavirus. While Trump deserves all the blame he’s getting for ignoring the emerging pandemic, he’s not the only one who discounted the odds this virus would be the very bad one feared for so long. 

5.1.20

The death toll continues to rise relentlessly. It’s now 115 in Monroe County and over 60,000 nationally—more than the number of lives claimed by the Vietnam War.

5.6.20

The weather forecast for the next several days is rather polar—we could have snow Thursday or Friday nights. Meanwhile, the outside world seems pretty bipolar, with a headlong rush to reopen in many places even as the pandemic outlook darkens. The U.S. now has passed the 70,000-mark for deaths (131 in Monroe County) and seems certain to reach 100,000 by the end of May. … STAT posted an in-depth analysis of three potential futures for COVID-19; none of them showed a quick end to the pandemic. … And as the hot spots move from large cities to rural areas, where health care services are much more limited, thousands of “little fires” could equal or exceed the numbers seen in New York City over the last two months.

In a piece to be posted on the Beacon next week, I look at a somewhat untold story of the lockdown: how many businesses have made a swift and effective transition to remote work. The transformation of Paychex is perhaps most striking: Before COVID-19 struck, about 6 percent of Paychex’s employees worked from home. Today, CEO Martin Mucci says, more than 95 percent of 15,000-plus employees companywide are telecommuting. 

5.8.20

The first national monthly jobs numbers since the pandemic arrived were released today. As expected, they were stunningly bad. More than 20.5 million jobs were shed in April, and the unemployment rate jumped to 14.7 percent—the worst since the Great Depression.

5.9.20

Today, for the first time since we returned from Europe, I ventured into a store. What prompted me to do it? Our vacuum started making a racket and smoking. So, I dropped it off at the local repair place. While I was there, a couple other customers stopped in. We all stayed more than six feet apart, and everyone—including the staffer—wore masks. That’s how it’s going to be for the foreseeable future.

5.12.20

Is the Rochester region ready to reopen? We’ll find out, starting Friday. During a visit here yesterday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that three regions—the Finger Lakes, Southern Tier and Mohawk Valley—have met the seven metrics required to begin phase 1 of New York’s reopening plan. All reopening businesses must implement social distancing, cleaning and density-reduction plans.

The risks of widespread reopening are outlined in a deeply researched blog post by Erin Bromage, an associate professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. “As states reopen, and we give the virus more fuel, all bets are off. I understand the reasons for reopening the economy, but I’ve said before, if you don’t solve the biology, the economy won’t recover.” 

Nationwide, the death toll has surpassed 80,000.

5.18.20

On Friday, Bristol Harbour disclosed that it is closing permanently due to the coronavirus. It’s surely not the only notable local businesses that will not survive the pandemic. 

5.20.20

All 50 states, to varying degrees, have begun to reopen. Clearly, lockdown fatigue is a big factor; the virus clearly has not been defeated yet. As of yesterday evening, 1.5 million cases had been reported in the U.S., with nearly 93,000 deaths. In Monroe County, confirmed cases totaled 2,363, with 178 deaths. 

Moderna announced that its (very) early vaccine tests have generated an immune response. The results were only from eight people. So, it’s reason for a bit of optimism but perhaps even more cautiousness.

5.21.20

new study says the cost of delaying the shutdown was high. As of May 3, 65,307 deaths had been reported; if the shutdown started a week earlier than it did in March, the total would have been an estimated 29,410—and if it started two weeks earlier, the number would’ve been 11,253. In other words, roughly 83 percent of the deaths could have been prevented. 

5.22.20

For the first time in nearly three months, I stepped inside a Wegmans store yesterday. And for good reason: We needed beer. That’s among the few things you can’t buy online for curbside pickup or delivery. I was in and out in five minutes. The store had perhaps half the shoppers of a pre-COVID weekday, and everyone was wearing a mask and generally respecting the six-feet rule. Exhibit A of the new normal, I’d say.

In his latest column, Nicholas Kristof writes: “The odd thing about reporting on the coronavirus is that the nonexperts are supremely confident in their predictions, while epidemiologists keep telling me that they don’t really know much at all.”

5.26.20

It’s now been 127 days since the first diagnosed case of COVID-19 in the U.S., and still so much about the virus is unknown. A big question mark is what effect the reopening nationwide will have on the number of cases and deaths. 

The Post interviewed John Barry, author of “The Great Influenza,” who had a number of interesting observations. Among them:

■ On what a historian 100 years from now would write about the 2020 pandemic: “If they’re writing about the United States, it would be the incomprehensibly incoherent response.”

■ On the most important lesson of the 1918 pandemic and whether we learned it: “Tell the truth” and “Apparently not.”

5.27.20

I turned 66 today. More so than ever, I feel fortunate to still be here. This evening, the Times posted an update saying the COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. has surpassed 100,000: The death toll is far higher than in any other nation in the world. The pandemic is on track to be the country’s deadliest public health disaster since the 1918 flu pandemic, in which about 675,000 Americans died.

5.31.20

More than 100,000 COVID deaths and 40 million people losing their jobs apparently wasn’t enough. Now, cities across the country are aflame after the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd. The unrest nationwide has pushed COVID into the second tier of news for the first time in nearly three months. At a Black Lives Matter protest downtown yesterday, it was hard to maintain social distance, but most people (though not all) wore masks.

6.9.20

Scientific American, on how deadly is COVID-19: “We know that the coronavirus spreads twice as fast as flu, or faster, and that if left unchecked it has the potential to race through populations like wildfire. … We know that a large majority of people likely remain unexposed and susceptible. If infected, we know some of these people will die.  … We know enough to know that this virus is deadly serious.”

6.17.20

Mike Pence wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that the “panic” about a second wave is “overblown.” Meanwhile, the U.S. and Canada extended the border closing for nonessential travel until July 23.

One mystery that might get cleared up soon: whether I had the virus shortly after we returned from France. The Red Cross now will give any blood donor a free antibody test, so I signed up for a donation on Saturday. The other thing I’m curious to learn: What the heck is my blood type? Seems like something one should know.

6.25.20

Two mysteries cleared up today. I logged on to the Red Cross Blood Services website and learned my blood type: O+. And then I saw something else that was positive: my antibody test. 

6.28.20

COVID cases worldwide surpassed 10 million today, with nearly 490,000 deaths; in the U.S., more than 2.5 million cases have been confirmed and the death toll is nearing 126,000. 

Yesterday evening, friends traveled here from Syracuse to have dinner with us on our porch. We maintained a safe distance, and prepared their food separately. At one point, they asked me how it felt to know I had a positive antibody test. I replied that it had not changed much for me. I am still taking the same precautions I did before the test result. But now, instead of thinking of people who’d had the virus as somehow “other,” I’m one of them. Not counted officially, but part of the (many) more than 10 million worldwide who’ve been infected. And one of the lucky ones too.

Among the reasons I don’t feel like I’m free and clear now is the fact we still know relatively little about COVID antibodies—how accurate are the tests, how much immunity does a previous infection confer and so on. Nearly all assumptions about the virus and its transmission are best guesses. 

7.3.20

The COVID surge continues. Each of the last two days the number of new cases nationwide has topped 50,000.

7.5.20

An article in Nature on the infection fatality rate (which, unsurprisingly, varies by country and risk factors like age—and all the calculations remain best guesses). Bottom line, I am in the ranks of the very roughly 99.4 percent of people who survive infection.

7.7.20

The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation now forecasts that deaths will surpass 200,000 by November. “The U.S. didn’t experience a true end to the first wave of the pandemic,” the IHME director said. “This will not spare us from a second surge in the fall, which will hit particularly hard in states currently seeing high levels of infections.” 

7.20.20

Rose received the results of her antibody test: positive (no surprise). 

Lately, we’ve been venturing out more. Over the last week we had dinner outside with friends at Richardson’s and then at Corn Hill Landing. In both cases, we took some precautions—wearing masks entering and leaving—but the masks were off while we dined. It seemed like acceptable risk, but who knows?

7.23.20

A question we’ve been asking—how much immunity do our antibodies give us against COVID, if any—was tackled in a Times article. The emerging answer seems to be: a fair amount. Similar positive conclusions from Florian Krammer, who details findings in research such as this paper, and a pair of Yale immunologists.

Any good news is welcome, because the baseline numbers in terms of new cases and deaths are pretty grim. And the outlook is equally bleak.

A more upbeat note: a Facebook video of Puccini’s aria “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot sung by tenor Leszek Swidzinski of the Polish Royal Opera, accompanied by the Medicantus Medical Doctors’ Choir, in a Warsaw hospital courtyard. The closing line translates as “I will win! I will win! I will win!” 

8.2.20

Lara, our daughter, arrives today from Boston. We haven’t seen her since Christmas.

Since I last wrote the U.S. passed another unfortunate milestone: 150,000 COVID deaths. New cases may be plateauing (at a very high level, around 50,000-65,000), but the roughly 1.9 million new infections in July were more than twice the number in any previous month and the daily death toll now routinely tops 1,000 and often is closer to 1,500. The Post yesterday published an in-depth article on how we’ve lost control of the virus and how it could get worse before it gets better. 

8.19.20

The COVID death toll in the U.S. now is near or over 170,000 (depending on which tracker you believe). The fatality rate now rivals the 1918 flu

8.26.20

With daily deaths stuck at around 1,000, it seems likely the toll by Election Day will easily be north of 200,000. The Post had a good piece a few days ago about how as the COVID risk becomes normalized, we begin to be less scared by it—and more willing to skip precautions. Our brains are wired this way. 

9.7.20

Labor Day. Since last week, all news here has been pushed to the background by the March 23 death while in Rochester police custody of Daniel Prude, which only now has come to light. 

A new model forecasts numbers continuing to rise until early December, peaking at more than 2,800 deaths daily. By year’s end, 410,000 people in the United States will have died under the model’s most-likely scenario. … As of yesterday, the Post’s tally showed at least 6,250,970 U.S. cases and 185,838 deaths since Feb. 29. In Monroe County there have been 5,301 cases and 295 deaths.

What surely will become a memory of the age of COVID: Last evening we went to a Publick Musick outdoor concert held in the driveway of a home in Brighton. It drew a small crowd (perhaps 30 people), all masked and spaced six feet apart.

9.13.20

The first Sunday of the 2020 NFL season—another strange day in a very strange year. The Bills won fairly handily, so there was plenty to cheer about … but the cheering at the game (where there were no fans) was “canned” and pumped in. The oddest thing was, by the end of the game it didn’t seem strange anymore.

The new issue of Time has a stark cover dominated by a number: 200,000. We’re not quite there—the STAT tracker puts the current death toll at 194,000—but clearly, it’s only a matter of days.

It’s often said that the 1918 flu eventually died out and disappeared. But in fact the 1918 flu is still with us—in mutated form. Will the same be written about COVID a century from now?

9.28.20

Somewhat in the background these days, COVID continues its relentless spread. STAT outlined four scenarios on how we might gain immunity. But most experts predict we have some rough months ahead, before we have any hope of truly turning the corner. One new study estimates only 10 percent of Americans have been infected, so the virus has plenty of territory to claim.

10.2.10

Trump has COVID. The quick take by political observers is what you’d expect: This is bad news for his reelection bid. Not only does it take him off the campaign trail, it puts a harsh spotlight on his mishandling of the pandemic

10.14.20

The president, who has bounced back from his bout with COVID, is now on the campaign trail. Most Americans could not afford the medical treatment he received after his diagnosis. 

With new cases rising in many states, the much-feared autumn wave of COVID may be getting started. We’re not alone: Europe and other parts of the world are experiences surges too. And like some Americans, a growing number of Europeans are sick of following the rules

10.16.20

Read a good article on the parallels between the Black Plague and COVID in terms of our response. “Much has changed since the 1340s,” author John Kelly wrote in his book (“The Great Mortality”) on the plague, “but not human nature.”

10.20.20

Trump yesterday said on a call with campaign workers that “people are tired of COVID. People are saying, ‘Whatever, just leave us alone.’ People are tired of hearing Fauci and all these idiots.” 

Pandemic fatigue is real and understandable; it’s no wonder that after many months of restrictions, with the virus continuing its relentless spread, the temptation is strong to think, how much worse would it be to go back to life as normal? But I’ll trust the consensus of the experts on this one.

10.25.20

Friday brought the highest number of new daily infections since the beginning of the pandemic. It topped the previous high of around 76,000 set in July. A new study estimates that 130,000 lives could be saved by February if everyone wore a mask; unfortunately, that’s unlikely to happen. 

Locally, the new-case totals are modest—60 to 80 a day—but ticking up. Flare-ups have forced Keuka and St. John Fisher to close their campuses. The next several weeks should show which way we’re headed.

11.1.20

More grim COVID milestones. On Friday morning, the Times reported that the day before, “the country recorded at least 90,000 new cases (that’s the equivalent of more than one per second) and crossed the threshold of 9 million cases since the start of the pandemic. Over the past week, the United States has recorded more than 500,000 new cases, averaging more than 77,000 a day…” 

Michael Mendoza

In Monroe County, the one-day count was the most since the pandemic began: 136. County health director Michael Mendoza urged residents not to succumb to pandemic fatigue. Then, Friday’s U.S. tally was even worse: just shy of 100,000 new cases. With the colder temperatures only now arriving, it’s hard to imagine that the numbers will not continue to rise.

11.3.20 

Election Day. At least 231,000 have died from COVID. Anthony Fauci said last week: “We’re in for a whole lot of hurt. It’s not a good situation. All the stars are aligned in the wrong place as you go into the fall and winter season, with people congregating at home indoors. You could not possibly be positioned more poorly.” 

11.11.21

Early results suggest a vaccine being developed by Pfizer and BioNTech could have an effectiveness as high as 90 percent. Both UR and Rochester Regional Health have taken part in the trials. Emergency authorization could come as early as Dec. 1, but most Americans probably won’t have a chance to get vaccinated (assuming all goes well) until well into the spring.

11.16.20

As of yesterday, the U.S. had surpassed 11 million reported virus cases, with 1 million of those logged in just the last week. The daily average of new cases is up by 80 percent from two weeks ago. A model from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projects 399,162 total deaths in the U.S. by Feb. 1, based on current conditions. 

Today did bring some good news: early results for the vaccine in development by Moderna shows a 94.5 percent effectiveness rate. So, both the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines might have effectiveness rates of 90 percent or better. 

11.19.20

The U.S. COVID death toll surpassed 250,000 yesterday. Locally, the numbers are up sharply, too, though not as bad as in Buffalo or many other parts of the country. The general outlook is not without hopeful signs; Pfizer said yesterday that in late-stage trials its vaccine was 95 percent effective.

One of the positive things driven by the pandemic is the unprecedented global scientific collaboration that has emerged in response to COVID. The development of highly effective vaccines in less than a year is one example; until now, no one has been able to do that in less than several years. And the new approaches taken could help in the rapid development of vaccines for other diseases too. It’s truly remarkable (I wouldn’t be surprised if the COVID vaccine teams end up with Nobel prizes).

The U.S., of course, is not alone in struggling with the autumn surge. In Europe, the WHO says, there has been a death every 17 seconds this week (though the increase in total cases may be slowing). Sweden has one of the highest rates, bringing more criticism of its laissez-faire approach. Germany has done better, and it seems able to mix humor with seriousness in its preventive messaging—with one video portraying a pandemic survivor interviewed in the future, who reflects on his “heroism”—sitting at home on a couch, doing nothing, just as they were told.

11.21.20

I donated convalescent plasma at the Red Cross center in Henrietta. The RC says each plasma donation helps four COVID patients, so little more than a drop in the bucket, but with nearly 200,000 people a day now testing positive, the need for donations is clear.

Eight months after we returned home from Europe via the Toronto airport, Canada has extended the border closing to at least Dec. 21, and Toronto has entered a 28-day lockdown.

11.24.20

Much of the city of Rochester and parts of the near suburbs have now been moved into the orange COVID zone, meaning stricter rules such as no indoor dining. The county is recording an average of nearly 300 cases a day, or 40 per 100,000 population. 

11.26.20

A Thanksgiving unlike any other. Early dinner on the porch with friends; we sat a good 10 feet apart, didn’t share utensils and wore masks any time we got closer to one another—all the things that ought to reduce the risk to close to zero. In the evening, a family Zoom call. 

Yesterday I logged on to the Red Cross site and found the results to my second antibody test: positive again. Still no way to know if this means I have any immunity, but it’s encouraging to know that the antibodies didn’t quickly fade away. 

The Times today also had an op-ed by Pope Francis. He grounded it in his own experience of nearly dying from a respiratory infection when he was 21. He wrote that the illness “taught me to depend on the goodness and wisdom of others.” And he observed that those who have died helping others suffering from COVID “testified to a belief: that it is better to live a shorter life serving others than a longer one resisting that call. … They are the antibodies to the virus of indifference. … If we are to come out of this crisis less selfish than when we went in, we have to let ourselves be touched by others’ pain.”

12.2.20

In Monroe County, new cases today totaled 625, the highest ever. The number of people hospitalized in the Finger Lakes region (461) and in ICUs (83) also are records. The death toll is 328.

The hopeful side is the progress on vaccines. Britain gave emergency approval to the Pfizer vaccine, the first country to do so. Behind the amazingly fast development is the advance of mRNA, which once was seen as an approach with little potential. 

12.9.20

Britain yesterday began to give the first of some 800,000 inoculations using the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The BBC says a 90-year-old woman became the first person in the world to receive a clinically authorized, fully tested COVID vaccine. A fellow named William Shakespeare received it shortly after her, triggering a flood of puns like: The “Taming of the Flu” and “Two Gentlemen of Corona.” 

12.10.20

U.S. daily COVID deaths topped 3,000 for the first time yesterday. More deaths than on either 9/11 or the attack on Pearl Harbor. The total now surpasses the number of soldiers who died in World War II (though remains far short of the estimated lives lost to the 1918 flu: 675,000). And the Thanksgiving surge likely has only begun.

12.12.20

The FDA gave emergency use authorization to the nation’s first COVID vaccine. The approval for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine came only 336 days after the genetic blueprint of a novel coronavirus was shared online by Chinese scientists. (In the case of AIDS, there still is no vaccine, nearly four decades after HIV was identified.)

12.14.20

The first COVID vaccinations in America were administered this morning even as the U.S. death toll reached 300,000.

12.16.20

Finally had my first COVID test (as a precaution before Christmas, when Lara will visit). The U.S. again set daily records for new cases (245,033) and deaths (3,611). 

12.21.20

Many countries are cutting off their links to Britain after discovery of a new coronavirus strain that’s reportedly 70 percent more contagious (though not necessarily more deadly) than the virus here and elsewhere. It’s also not known whether the new strain might be more resistant to the vaccines that are now in distribution (Moderna’s vaccine received approval on Friday, joining the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine).

12.22.20

Mom, who turned 93 a few weeks ago, has tested positive. It has been six days since her first (mild) symptoms; typically, when conditions deteriorate, it’s within the period of day 5-8. If Mom continues to do well over the next 48 hours, it’s highly likely the dangerous period has passed, her doctor says. 

Globally, the focus continues to be on the SARS-CoV-2 variant that has emerged in the UK. STAT looked at the looming questions about this new variant, referred to as B.1.1.7, it showed up with at least 17 mutations, according to one genetic analysis.

12.25.20

Christmas Day. Worldwide, there have been more than 80 million cases and 1.75 million deaths; in the U.S., nearly 19 million cases and more than 330,000 deaths. 

12.28.20

Yesterday, as we were driving to go snowshoeing at Genesee County Park and Forest, Mom rang my cellphone. She’d received a call telling her that she’d cleared the COVID quarantine period.

12.31.20

The annus horribilis staggers to its end. Yesterday, COVID-19 hospitalizations surpassed 125,000 for the first time, as more cases of the fast-spreading variant of the coronavirus were reported in parts of the country. According to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, the U.S. reported more than 220,000 new COVID cases and deaths topped 3,700 deaths, a single-day record; the total to date now is more than 342,000. In Monroe County, the number of total deaths now stands at 592.

A few weeks ago, Time magazine had a cover calling 2020 the “worst year ever.” It’s a popular meme on the internet now. To be sure, it was a bad year. But the worst ever? John Barry, in “The Great Influenza,” writes that the 1918 pandemic caused an estimated 50 million to 100 million deaths (or more than 5 percent of the total population) including 675,000 in the U.S. Adjusted for population growth, those death tolls today would be more than 300 million worldwide and 2.1 million in the U.S.

The Post looked at the “worst year ever” question. For the entire globe, historians say nothing else compares to “1348, the height of the Black Death, during which as many as 200 million people died. That would be like wiping out about 65 percent of the U.S. population.”

For me, 2020 has not been an entirely bleak and awful year. Some of the good things? The quieter, healthier living; Zoom sessions with family members, and al fresco meals with friends. 

Others things to remember about this pandemic year: walks and canal path bike rides (and being able to remain maskless outside so long as you steered clear of others); in the early days of the coronavirus, wiping down Instacart groceries picked up curbside at Wegmans, gas pump handles and other surfaces that we later learned carry almost no risk of transmission; and certainly Mom’s diagnosis and incredible quick recovery.

1.1.21

Writing in The Atlantic, Zeynep Tufekci says the coronavirus variant is a ticking time bomb. Her warning: “Increased transmissibility can wreak havoc in a very, very short time—especially when we already have uncontrolled spread in much of the United States. … we may face a true tragedy: exponential growth with massive numbers of illnesses and deaths just as highly effective vaccines are being made available.”

1.6.21

Once again, I have underestimated how bad things might get. It’s now 4 p.m., and for the last few hours, the Capitol has been in chaos—with a mob of Trump supporters storming the building, shots fired, apparent smoke bombs, congressional representatives ducking under their seats and racing to places where they can hide safely. …

Today also was the deadliest day (so far) for COVID-19: Nearly 4,000 deaths were reported. And we may be falling dangerously short of what needs to be done to trace the emergence of new variants.

1.8.21

In Washington, momentum for removing Trump from office—most likely by impeachment—seems to be growing. … And COVID rages on. Thursday, there were more than 4,100 deaths and more than 280,000 new cases, both the highest ever.

1.14.21

Rose signed up today for the stage 3 Novavax COVID vaccine trial. Unlike the mRNA vaccines, it uses a “recombinant protein nanoparticle technology.” The vaccine produced “strikingly high” levels of antibodies in earlier stage trials.

1.19.21

The COVID death toll reached 400,000 today, on the eve of the one-year mark since the first U.S. case was recorded. It’s also the eve of Trump’s departure from the White House; history will judge how many among the 400,000 died due to his callousness and incompetence. At sundown, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris presided over a national mourning service at the Lincoln Memorial. “To heal we must remember,” Biden said as he stood in front of the Reflecting Pool, which was surrounded by 400 lights signifying the 400,000 coronavirus victims. “It’s hard sometimes to remember. But that’s how we heal. …. Between sundown and dusk, let us shine the lights in the darkness along the sacred pool of reflection and remember all whom we lost.” It was brief, unadorned—and very moving.

I have another appointment this Friday to donate convalescent plasma. So much attention has shifted to vaccinations, but the Red Cross says the need for plasma remains acute. At least one study suggests that plasma can be very effective for older people, if they get it within days of the onset of the disease. 

1.20.21

Inauguration Day. Biden will need all of the good will expressed today. As if to underline what he’s up against, the daily COVID death number spiked again to nearly 4,400. As his presidency begins, the STAT tracker says there have been 24,440,100 cases and 406,196 deaths in the U.S.

1.26.21

Yesterday, we did a half-day at Bristol Mountain, the first time on skis since we returned from France and I fell ill with COVID. We were impressed with Bristol Mountain’s protocols in place for COVID (masks at all times in lines, on the lifts and in the lodge).

1.31.21

Is the surge of autumn and early winter finally on the wane? Nationally, the daily new cases and positivity rates are declining (though the daily death rate is still averaging over 3,000). In Monroe County, the trend lines are the same. And yet … with the multiple variants apparently spreading rapidly, it seems too soon to be even cautiously optimistic. 

2.6.21

The anniversary of first U.S. COVID death. There have been more than 26.8 million cases so far, and 459,361 deaths, with 3,556 yesterday. Each day, about 1.3 million people in the U.S. are receiving a vaccine.

The Monroe County health department said that the death toll three days ago had reached 1,000 after 63 new deaths were reported (it appears the latest deaths were two on Jan. 31). That means we’ve now equaled the total for the 1918 flu pandemic here. 

Another sobering note: New research suggests that past infection may not provide robust protection against new variants

2.19.21

We’ve reached nearly 28 million cases and 493,000 deaths. In Monroe County, total infections now have surpassed 50,000, and deaths are north of 1,100. 

2.20.21

The Times today posted an analysis of when we might reach the threshold of herd immunity (around 70 percent). Its estimates are May to July, depending on factors like the speed of vaccinations, whether restrictions remain in place and the spread of variants. The toll until we reach the threshold would be an additional 90,000 to 200,000 deaths.

Biden yesterday said the U.S. could be “approaching normalcy” by the end of the year, but he wisely cautioned that new virus variants and potential vaccine production problems could slow progress. 

2.22.21

The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center today showed the U.S. death toll has reached a half-million. That’s roughly one death per minute for an entire year. 

Reflecting on the milestone, the Times called it “an unfathomable toll.” It added: “No other country has counted so many deaths in the pandemic. More Americans have perished from COVID-19 than on the battlefields of World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War combined.”

2.26.21

A case of the UK COVID-19 variant has been identified in an Ontario County resident, officials disclosed yesterday. “This case of COVID-19 was quickly investigated and appeared to be no different than our other cases. The individual recovered. This is not a surprise as viruses do not respect borders.” So far, 154 UK variant cases have been found in New York. 

As the spread of the COVID variants continues, it seems highly likely we’ll face what’s now being called “the fourth wave.” Or as one scientist says, “we’re essentially facing a pandemic within a pandemic.”

The B.1.1.7 variant is expected to become COVID’s predominant form in this country by late March. 

The FDA is reviewing the Johnson & Johnson vaccine today. The vaccine is a single dose and uses a different kind of technology than the first two authorized vaccines based on mRNA, one called “viral vector.” 

In Monroe County, 13 new deaths were reported. The total to date is 1,137, with 51,221 positive cases. 

3.1.21

As expected, the J&J vaccine got the green light. Now, there will be three different vaccine options. To those who think the J&J single-dose vaccine is inferior or even insufficient, URMC posted a brief, clear rebuttal. Would you really turn down a vaccine whose clinical-trial success rate in preventing deaths was 100 percent?

3.2.21

Texas plans to drop all COVID restrictions (including mask wearing), even as Biden says all adult Americans should have a vaccination by May. It’s not that Texas is doing a particularly terrific job; rather, its governor simply can’t wait to be done with the virus. (Mississippi is going maskless too.) A recurring theme over the last many months.

The number of vaccinations nationwide as of today: 51.8 million vaccinated (the number of people who have received at least one dose of the vaccine, covering 42.5% of the prioritized population and 15.6% of the total population).

3.8.21

A small step toward back to normal: the CDC says it’s OK for vaccinated people to gather without masks indoors, so long as they keep the group small. But most experts say precautions in public remain necessary.

3.11.21

One year since the first COVID case in Monroe County was reported. It’s also one year since the World Health Organization declared COVID a global pandemic and Trump announced that travel from Europe would be halted.

Today, Monroe County reported a total of 52,751 cases and 1,173 deaths. It’s worth taking a moment to let those numbers sink in.

This evening, we watched Biden’s address to the nation as president. He directed the 50 states to make all adult Americans eligible to sign up for COVID shots by no later than May 1. He also said he expects life in the United States to return to something like normal by the Fourth of July. In a new CNN poll, 77 percent of Americans say they think the worst of the pandemic is behind us. 

3.12.21

Ezra Klein writes today: “Few emotions are as unnerving right now as hope. No one wants to permit themselves optimism, only to be crushed when death tolls rise. … But the case for hope is strengthening.” He interviewed Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, who believes by the end of April, “we will have vaccinated almost everybody who’s high risk, over 65 or with major chronic diseases. … We’re going to see hospitalizations plummet. We’re going to see deaths from this disease plummet. It is absolutely wonderful.” 

But Jha says we still need to resist the temptation to jump the gun, because we’re not there yet. “So the question is how do you express both incredible optimism, enthusiasm, happiness, while at the same time saying, you’ve got to be careful? It’s a tough, tough act.”

3.17.21

The first COVID death in Monroe County was reported on this date one year ago.

The latest numbers: In Monroe County, 1,188 deaths, 53,391 cases. In the U.S., the CDC reports, 534,099 deaths and more than 29 million cases; 113 million vaccine doses administered, 12 percent fully vaccinated. (I’m slated to get a shot next week.) 

__________

Looking back over the last year, I’m struck by a few things. One is that for all we’ve learned about SARS-CoV-2, much remains a mystery. Why is the disease caused by this virus sometimes deadly, but very often it produces only mild symptoms—or none at all? Why does it sometimes kill people who are young with no underlying conditions—and barely touch others in their 80s or 90s? Dr. Fauci, who has spent decades fighting new infectious diseases, has said COVID mystifies him. “I have never really seen anything like this. And it still puzzles me,” he remarked a couple of months ago. Asked what explains the wildly unpredictable nature of the virus, he replied: “I don’t know. And that’s what I really want to find out.”

In other ways, however, this pandemic year brings to mind the Gabriel Garcia Marquez novella, “Chronicle of a Death Foretold.” For years before COVID struck, the U.S. government knew of the risk of a deadly global pandemic and even planned for one. Yet as John Barry says, our response overall has been “incomprehensibly incoherent.” And not only in the beginning; as the weeks and months passed, repeated warnings from health experts who cautioned the virus was “not done with us” went unheeded.

The result: The number of confirmed cases in the U.S. is double any other country. We also have nearly twice as many deaths as No. 2 (Brazil) and rank among the 10 highest deaths per 100,000 population, at 159.79. (By contrast, New Zealand has 0.53 and China, 0.35. If we’d matched either rate, the U.S. would have fewer than 2,000 COVID deaths today, not more than 530,000.)

Our collective failure to respond with more wisdom and compassion underscores the quiet heroism of frontline health care workers, lab researchers, retail clerks, school teachers, delivery drivers, clinical trial volunteers and so many more. In my experience, most people have done their best to protect themselves, their families and their communities. But, sadly, others have not.

A few weeks ago, I read an article that I’d missed when it was posted last May. It describes what Buddhism can teach us about surviving the pandemic, and it seems even more meaningful now. The bottom line: If you’re doing OK, “there’s no sense in wallowing in guilt over it. Your guilt doesn’t actually help anyone; it just adds more suffering to the world.” 

Instead, think of what you can do for others—wear a mask, get vaccinated, support hard-hit local businesses or simply stay in touch with those close to you. And then do it.

Paul Ericson is Rochester Beacon executive editor.

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