Commentary

Reflecting on one year of a global pandemic

What we’ve forgotten, and why ‘personal responsibility’ fails in times of crisis

November 18, 2020 6:00 am

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It feels like I’ve aged a decade this year.

Incredibly, and without fanfare, Nov. 17 marked the anniversary of the novel zoonotic coronavirus as first traced to humans. Since this time, we’ve learned a lot. Based on the rise of infections, it seems we’ve forgotten just as much.

Pandemic fatigue is real. Whether you’re a parent cooped up with small children or someone living alone without a hug for months, there’s no denying the toll of the virus extends well beyond death. This year has tested human resiliency and rationality in a way that few challenges could. With the holidays fast approaching, many of us will be tempted by the allure of normalcy in traditional social gatherings — a perfect poison apple that could flunk even the best of students.

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It’s easy to overlook how far we’ve come amid the chaos. Not long ago, we didn’t even know how the virus spread. Today, scientists have not only learned the virus’ primary mode of transmission (droplets, followed by airborne), but we’ve sequenced the genetic code and developed a first-of-its-kind mRNA vaccine technology with unprecedented initial efficacy — all in under a year.

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Although many Americans continue to refute the science of COVID-19, it’s important to recognize that many more have taken preventative actions in wearing masks, working remotely and physically distancing. In Colorado, this determination paid off, with a strong initial reduction of cases from the initial peak — even if it wasn’t by as much or as quick as it could have been. In this light, infection and death rates are still far lower than if measures to flatten the curve had not been taken at all. 

Unfortunately, over time, this success has served to provide a predictable false sense of security. As cases dropped, and fatigue set in, preventions weakened. Now, cases are higher than ever. This time around, even leaders who previously took swift actions have become resistant, in part citing statistics that are born from the very success we initiated.

How quickly we’ve forgotten.

Flattening the curve was always about more than current conditions. While scientists have advanced leaps and bounds in our understanding of this virus, we have not yet developed a cure for the disease. Lower death rates, therefore, may be fleeting, remaining reliant on our ability to not overrun our hospitals, care teams, supplies and morale. Particularly as the length of time from infection to death can lag by up to two months or more, citing death rates as a basis for preventative measures at the start of an exponential upswing is insufficient.

We also now know that COVID-19 impacts extend far beyond death tolls. While fatality is the pinnacle of severe outcomes, many patients experience a variety of long-term damage to the brain, heart and other systems and/or residual symptoms. In one study, neurological impacts resulted in one of every five patients who were hospitalized to be diagnosed with a previously nonexistent mental health disorder within 90 days of discharge. Given the severity in potentially lifelong symptoms, the measure for enacting firm flatten-the-curve measures — including stay-at-home orders — should again not be determined by only fatality rates but rather by predictive and comprehensive health outcomes.

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In Colorado, over 2,550 people have died of COVID-19 to date. This painful number, however, fails to take into account the over 11,200 patients who have been hospitalized, and the 167,700 infected. Refusal to minimize overall hospitalizations potentially subjects thousands of Coloradans to lifelong impact, not to mention further burdening care providers. Particularly when public health officials ask for clear mandates, and none come, we risk reversing prior success.

Finally, shifting the burden to personal responsibility during prolonged periods of stress fundamentally mistakes how the human mind operates. Our proclivity toward lapses in objectivity increases with stress, making it all the more critical for leaders to set forth clear and firm guidelines during these times. Mixed messages — such as not prompting orders based on previously established guidelines — comes with the inherent risk of listeners hearing what they want to hear, and no one wants to hear it’s time to stay home leading up to the holidays.

Accepting responsibility for others in times of crisis is an inherent mark of excellent leadership. By and large, Coloradans have worked hard to stay safe. As we pass the one year mark, it’d be a shame to lose these gains in the coming weeks and months due to one fell swoop of amnesia or ambiguity. 

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Trish Zornio
Trish Zornio

Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation's top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.

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