‘A Terrible Cost’: CA Marks 2 Years With COVID-19
Two years ago, nearly 40 million Californians were asked to stay home. Since then, COVID-19 has woven itself into the framework of society.
A Mickey Mouse character wears a face mask outdoors on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles on March 4.
Omicron is fading away, and so are Americans’ worries about COVID-19. Fewer Americans now say they’re concerned they’ll be infected compared with January following the rise and fall of the wildly contagious coronavirus variant.
CALIFORNIA — “This is not a permanent state” Gov. Gavin Newsom told Californians on March 19, 2020, the day he issued the first stay-at-home order of the coronavirus pandemic.
Two years later, Californians are in a different state of mind, but it’s hard to define what “normal” will look like as the state enters year three.
Last year, the Golden State was beginning to emerge from what felt like suspended animation with the advent of vaccines.
This year, the state is in what Newsom said would be “a moment in time.”
Last March, Patch last spoke to Dr. Kimberly Shriner, an infectious disease specialist at Huntington Hospital at a time when officials were racing to inoculate residents amid an unpredictable and swiftly mutating virus.
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“We’re not at the beginning of the end,” Shriner said then. “But, as [Winston] Churchill would say, ‘We are maybe at the end of the beginning.'”
When we followed up with her recently, Shriner told Patch, “I guess to stick with the Churchillian analogy — maybe we’re getting ready to storm the beaches of Normandy.”
By this, she meant face a future with the coronavirus, though it likely won’t look like lockdowns and social distancing.
Since the World Health Organization first declared a global pandemic on March 11, 2020, more than 6 million people have died around the world. In California, 86,927 people have died.
Nearly 1 million people in the U.S. lost their jobs, and students endured three years of school disruptions and extended mask mandates.
But the situation is improving. On Wednesday, the Golden State reported a 1.4 percent positivity rate — down from 8.8 percent on Feb. 8.
Hospitalizations of people with COVID-19 have plummeted 80 percent in the last two months across the U.S. since a mid-January pandemic peak, dropping to the lowest levels since July 2021, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We’ve learned many, many good things, but it’s been [at] a terrible cost,” Shriner said.
“And the 6 million people around the world dead from COVID is a huge underestimate,” she added. “It’s probably in the tens of tens of millions, if not even higher. There’s just so many deaths that we don’t know about that have happened.”
‘A Layer Of New Protection’
When the first surge of COVID-19 patients hit hospitals on the West Coast, the tsunami of disease was more than unnerving.
“We knew that COVID was coming,” Shriner said.
She recalled the day Huntington Hospital received its first coronavirus patient at the end of March 2020. He was an otherwise healthy 36-year-old who had gone to Disney World.
“I remember the care that the nurses provided him and the singular courageous moment one of our pulmonologists … quietly put on her protective gear, went in and talked to him very tenderly, and then intubated him. And he died the next day,” she said. “And that was that was the sort of moment of recognition that this is going to be a really serious, challenging event — health care workers all over the world just stepped up.”
The most recent surge was driven by the highly transmissible but less deadly omicron variant. But health care workers have become familiar with the virus.
“It’s kind of like we’re veterans now, we know what to do,” Shriner said. “But it has been very taxing to toggle back and forth between surges and post-surge mop-up.”
The Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and Moderna vaccines quickly ushered in a new era of the pandemic last year, but officials didn’t anticipate mass hesitation from wide swaths of people.
“Individuals now are either vaccinated or unvaccinated, recovered or not — in other words, they passed away,” Shriner said.
Health officials did not expect vaccines to entirely eradicate the virus, but it came as a challenge when even the vaccinated began to fall ill during the omicron surge. That prompted state officials to renew pandemic restrictions long after Californians had celebrated the liberation of returning to society.
Newsom first ordered all Californians to wear face coverings on June 18, 2020, when coronavirus cases began to surge on the West Coast. Since then, mask mandates have been implemented — and changed — multiple times in response to rising and falling COVID-19 case rates.
One of the last standing mask mandates was finally lifted on March 11, when Newsom announced that schoolchildren and unvaccinated residents no longer needed them in most settings. Still, masks were still required in high-transmission public settings.
Despite lingering pushback from pandemic-wearied Californians, Shriner maintained that masks and vaccines were still the biggest defenses against COVID-19.
“We know what to do to protect people and to protect ourselves,” she said. “Biologically, the whole world sort of has a layer of protection —whether you’ve been vaccinated or whether you’ve had COVID or whether you’ve had both or you’ve been exposed to it.”
‘Never Going Back To Normal’
When Golden Staters first went into lockdown, the universal message was that if everyone stayed in place for two weeks — then four, then one month — society would return to normal.
“I think initially all of us thought, ‘If we can get on top of this quickly, it may be a seasonal thing,'” Shriner told Patch last year. “But it became very clear that we weren’t equipped.”
This year, Shriner and the rest of the medical world have learned that, unlike many pathogens, COVID-19 doesn’t seem to have “seasonality.”
“It just kind of rotates from one country to the next, as different variants emerge and kind of wash over the populations,” she said. “So that’s the discouraging part. But the encouraging part is our knowledge of how to deal with this, both on a local level at our hospital and on a global level, has just exploded exponentially.”
Experts this year suspected that an endemic approach to the pandemic will mean three vaccine shots. The introduction of antiviral pills to the public this month was also expected to help people after they’ve been diagnosed.
“We’re never going back to the normal that we had before this, because this didn’t exist,” Shriner said.
‘Moving Past The Crisis Phase’
Breathalyzers that detect the coronavirus upon entering a business, more ventilation in public spaces, antibody treatments and continuous vaccines: These are a few things that may characterize a future with the coronavirus.
Moving into a new era, California became the first state to formally announce a shift to an “endemic” approach, as announced by Newsom last week.
“We are moving past the crisis phase into a phase where we will work to live with this virus,” Newsom told reporters at a news conference in Fontana last month.
“To some degree this pandemic has certainly brought important changes moving forward, and science and so forth,” Shriner said. “But it’s also it’s just taken the scabs off of so many sores around the world, inequity and discrimination and political strife and authoritarianism and all kinds of stuff. It’s a really interesting time in history, but a really difficult one.”