Michelle Deal-Zimmerman: COVID marks 3-year anniversary. But as some celebrate, others calibrate.

March 14 marks three years since the first case of coronavirus was detected in Baltimore. We have spent more than 1,000 days living within a pandemic nightmare. And dying. That, too.

For the most part, Marylanders in the last year or so have moved on with life and new beginnings. New marriages, new babies, new jobs, new homes, new businesses, new leaders, new plans and new hopes.

But the old COVID-19 persists. It hasn’t moved on — and there’s no end in sight.

Last week, the globally known and lauded Johns Hopkins coronavirus dashboard made its final entries before shutting down, just after marking its three-year anniversary. Maryland closed the main testing and vaccination site at the Baltimore Convention Center in February. And the federal emergency mandate ends in May.

Woohoo. We are closed to this pandemic business. I just hope somebody tells the virus.

It’s true, we’re in a pretty good place today. Immunity is broad and perhaps, something herd-like, with even the unvaccinated having some decent level of defense against severe disease. So many have had the virus — the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates more than 55% of adults and over 95% of children have been infected — that we may have a wall of protection for an unknown number of days, weeks or months. You may be able to go 10 months without getting it again. Or 30 days. You may take Paxlovid and feel better in three days. With only a lingering bitter aftertaste. Or you may test positive again in seven days.

In other words, there’s a lot we still don’t know about the virus, some 36 months later. Much of what we do know about the aftermath of infection doesn’t look so great. It looks scary — and maybe that’s why we’d rather pack up our things and go than confront what may be ongoing and devastating consequences from this still-novel virus.

U.S. life expectancy has dropped precipitously in less than three years. According to estimates from 2021, the most recent data available, the expected life span of a newborn is now 76.4 years, the lowest in nearly two decades. What happened? COVID happened is the short and ugly answer nobody wants to hear, with the virus accounting for 60% of the decline in life expectancy in 2021. Death rates were higher for every age group from 1 to over 85.

More people died after the vaccines became available than in the year before. Anti-vaxxers will say ”Aha!” but a rational being would note how quickly the public health mandates that kept us safe in 2020 were dropped by officials, businesses and others who thought the vaccines would slow or end transmission. The shots were incredible interventions with great results for individual health, but they did less than hoped to prevent spread.

Without masking or social distancing or clear direction from public health about what individuals could do to prevent infection other than be vaccinated, COVID-19 evolved, hitting alphabetical benchmarks from Alpha to Omicron, each more transmissible than the one before.

The death toll keeps growing, too. More than 1.1 million people have died of COVID-19 in America, stunning but still likely an undercount based on public health research. Globally, the toll is nearly 7 million, according to the World Health Organization. In Maryland we have seen over 16,000 deaths with a clear majority of those — more than 13,000 — in people age 60 and older, a trend that tracks nationally.

Despite most deaths being in older folks, many of retirement age, the effect of the virus on the U.S. workforce is significant. Federal Chairman Jerome Powell, who tested positive for COVID-19 in January, said last December that roughly 400,000 deaths among working-age Americans had contributed to the depletion of the nation’s workforce.

And that’s before you include workers who now have disabilities arising from coronavirus infection via long COVID, a health condition that is only now being widely explored and acknowledged. The virus can persist in some areas of the body causing dysfunction and death. Hockey players, Hollywood actors, models, pop singers, TV hosts — no one is immune to this side effect, and there is no cure.

Despite what you may have heard — or even experienced — Omicron, the latest variant, is not mild. Your body’s response may have been mild because of vaccination or prior infection. And even if the illness was mild, like a cold, you may later experience other serious health impacts. The long-term complications can include heart damage, stroke, blood clots, shortness of breath, erectile dysfunction, hearing loss, dizziness, fatigue, gastrointestinal problems and depression. In 2022, the CDC reported up to 19% of those infected with COVID develop a longer disease or require a longer recovery.

These are real, life-altering, if not life-ending, impacts of a virus that we have spent three years downplaying to great extent. We may be tired of the battle, but the virus is not. It has decades of fight left in it. Evolution will not allow it to stop.

Yes, COVID is here to stay, and we have to learn to live with it. But that doesn’t mean total capitulation to years of fraught health and unknown outcomes. It means being smart, innovative, cautious and most importantly, considerate of others.

It also means enjoying those times when infections are low and the virus seems to take a break. Like now.

Hospitalizations in Maryland are at their lowest point since last April. State data show the virus doesn’t cause admissions to bloom or boom in spring, but rather the number seems to fall until summer begins. As of March 14, there were 264 hospitalizations statewide. Overall, COVID-related hospitalizations in Maryland have only been below 100 in one month since the coronavirus pandemic began three years ago. That was in July 2021, amid the vaccine rollout, when it dipped as low as 66 hospitalizations.

We can hope COVID-19 follows the same pattern this year — or does better. But we can also do more than hope. We can stay home when sick, test before large gatherings, get a booster shot and wear a mask, preferably an N95. It helps, despite what you’ve heard.

Michelle Deal-Zimmerman is senior content editor for features and an advisory member of The Sun’s Editorial Board. Her column runs every fourth Wednesday. She can be reached at [email protected].

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