COVID-19: ONE YEAR LATER

Posted 3/10/21

Exactly one year ago, the World Health Organization declared global pandemic in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Since then, more than 500,000 have died in the United States. According to the N.C. …

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COVID-19: ONE YEAR LATER

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Exactly one year ago, the World Health Organization declared global pandemic in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Since then, more than 500,000 have died in the United States. According to the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services, 79 have died in Chatham County.

The News + Record identified 74 Chathamites lost to COVID-19 after reviewing every death certificate in Chatham County filed since March 1, 2020. In each case, COVID-19 was listed as the primary cause of death or as a contributing factor.

Their deaths represent the pandemic’s grimmest toll, but not its only one. Some COVID-19 survivors have irreparable bodily damage. Millions face ongoing unemployment. Millions more have suffered intense mental and emotional distress.

Pandemic fatigue and habituation can dull us to the magnitude of loss in the year we’ve endured. Recited statistics lose their gravity. But these are not just numbers to be tallied for the annals of history. They were our friends, our family, our neighbors.

Chatham’s fallen

While the pandemic has not totally spared Chatham’s younger residents, most on this list are from the elderly population. All but nine were over 70 years old. About 80% had preexisting health conditions that compromised their abilities to fight the virus.

“The past year has brought many challenges to all of us and the virus has taken a heavy toll on the Chatham community, as it has across the world,” said Chatham County Public Health Dept. Director Mike Zelek in a press release, reflecting on a year since the pandemic first touched Chatham.

“More than 4,000 Chatham residents have tested positive for COVID-19, including a disproportionate number of Hispanic/Latinx residents, especially early in the pandemic,” he said. “In the past year, 78 people who called Chatham home have passed away from the virus, most of whom were residents of skilled nursing facilities. Our routines have changed greatly, we have grown accustomed to wearing masks and we all long for a return to normalcy.”

Since Zelek’s statement on March 6, one more Chathamite has died from the coronavirus, and more are expected. While the pandemic’s early months claimed the most Chatham lives, the number of deaths has steadily ticked up since November.

In turn, vaccine availability has sharply risen in recent months, but Zelek warns against prematurely abandoning our pandemic best practices.

“I ask the Chatham community to keep up the fight until the end,” he said. “With COVID-19 vaccinations increasing and cases on the decline, I am hopeful that we are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel after a difficult winter. But this past year has taught us that we are still dealing with a highly infectious and dangerous virus that wants to spread. Now is not the time to let our guard down.”

Reasons for pride

About 8% of all Chatham deaths in the last year were tied to COVID-19. That figure is alarming, but still better than what many counties have experienced elsewhere in North Carolina.

“Although we have not been spared from the virus these last several months, we have not seen the rates of infection that most other counties have,” Zelek said. “Chatham residents have risen to this unprecedented challenge, wearing their masks and avoiding gatherings despite the inconvenience.”

Community pushback against health department recommendations has also been minimal, facilitating a quicker path to normal everyday life.

“Our vaccination rates are currently among the highest in the state,” Zelek said. “While some local public health departments have faced attacks and harassment, we have felt overwhelming support from residents and county leadership who have taken the virus seriously since the pandemic began.”

For the community’s efforts — in Chatham and statewide — some aspects of regular life are starting to resume.

In a press conference late last month, Gov. Roy Cooper eased several restrictions under a new executive order. He lifted a modified stay-at-home order and increased gathering size limits. Businesses, including restaurants, retail stores and sports venues, can expand their operating capacities.

The welcome changes come as vaccine distribution accelerates. Three COVID-19 vaccines are now approved in the U.S. — from Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. Five Chatham distributors are authorized to give shots: UNC Health, CCPHD, Piedmont Health Services, Siler City Pharmacy and Walgreens. For more information and a full list of options in North Carolina, visit https://covid19.ncdhhs.gov/findyourspot.

What comes next?

It would be nice to relegate our pandemic woes to one year in the history books. But COVID-19’s effects are sure to endure for some time.

New variants of the virus in New York and California are spreading quickly and threaten to sidestep community immunization. Is another spike on its way? Will an evolved virus render our vaccines ineffectual? Will we have to lock down again?

Probably, probably not, and no, most experts say.

“The ground is shifting very, very quickly,” said Dr. Joshua T. Schiffer, an infectious disease specialist in Seattle, in an interview with the New York Times. In other words, much is yet unknown. New variants are likely to increase infection rates for a time, but vaccine efficacy despite new versions of the virus is probable.

The biggest determinant of future success in thwarting the virus, then, will be our own behavior.

“The single biggest lesson I’ve learned during the pandemic is that epidemiological modeling struggles with prediction, because so much of it depends on human behavioral factors,” said Carl Bergstrom, another Seattle expert in the same NYT report.

As some aspects of normalcy return, can we remain vigilant in limiting further spread, or will complacency undermine our efforts? Zelek hopes the memory of fallen Chathamites will inspire the former.

“In honor of the (79) Chatham residents who are no longer with us one year later,” he said, “let’s continue to practice the three W’s, get vaccinated when it is our turn and keep looking out for each other.”

Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at dldolder@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @dldolder.

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