One million lives is a tragedy, not a statistic
One million deaths. One million lives lost to Covid-19 in the United States. Two years ago, we nurses never thought that we would reach this grim Covid-19 milestone. We had fewer than 1,000 deaths due to Covid by the end of March 2020.
As nurses, we understand that people want to believe the pandemic is over and long to return to their lives before Covid. But we do not want to reach yet another devastating milestone. We do not want to see more patients hospitalized for Covid. Every single Covid death is a tragedy, not a statistic. They are someone’s beloved friend, child, parent, relative, partner, or spouse.
One million is more than the population of Fort Worth, Texas, or Jacksonville, Fla., the 12th and 13th largest U.S. cities, respectively. One million is more than the U.S. military casualties in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam War, Persian Gulf War, Iraq War, and Afghanistan War combined. One million is more than any other country’s total Covid deaths. One million is nearly16 percent of all Covid deaths worldwide (even though the U.S. population is less than 5 percent of the world’s total).
To avoid reaching yet another unimaginable milestone, we must take a public health approach to prevent infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. We need to continue using all effective measures to limit transmission of the virus, especially with the highly contagious Omicron BA.2, BA.4, BA.5 and other sublineages spreading around the world. The new “normal” should focus on prevention, which includes proper masking, distancing, surveillance testing, contract tracing, quarantining, vaccine equity, and optimal air ventilation. This is not the time to abandon effective public health measures, such as mask mandates, despite the disastrous decision by Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle striking down the Biden administration’s requirement of public masking on airplanes, trains, and mass transit. We applaud the U.S. Justice Department’s decision to appeal this ruling.
If we fail to prevent widespread transmission, the virus will continue to evolve and we will face new variants of concern that may further evade vaccine protection. The pandemic is far from over. Cases and hospitalizations are on the rise as Covid funding runs out, which means the United States will be unable to buy vaccines, tests, and therapeutics for a potential surge in the fall. Our public health response to the pandemic is at grave risk. Congress urgently needs to approve additional funding to address the pandemic and ensure that our country has enough vaccines, tests, and therapeutics as well as provide funding for vaccines for people in low- and moderate-income countries.
We also need accurate information about the infection rate to respond quickly. That’s why National Nurses United was highly critical of the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions’ (CDC) new Covid-19 Community Levels metric that moves away from prevention and emphasizes personal responsibility. The new metric narrows the critical window during which the CDC and public health agencies can respond to and prevent further transmission, infections, hospitalizations, and death from Covid-19. Here’s what the CDC’s community-levels map looks like as of May 12, 2022.
Here’s what the map would look like under the previous CDC metric, which shows that 90 percent of U.S. counties are experiencing moderate, substantial, or high levels of transmission. The previous metric only applies to health care settings, but nurses know that delineating between public health and worker health is impossible, especially during a pandemic. Health care worker transmission levels are a bellwether for what is happening in the community as a whole.
We urge the CDC to restore the previous four-tiered Covid-19 community transmission metric. We should not be changing guidelines to justify rolling back public health protections.
What happens outside our hospital walls has direct consequences inside the hospital, where nurses have held patients’ hands as they drew their last breath or held up an iPad as family members said their final farewells.
We nurses know that we are not safe unless everyone is safe. Our most vulnerable patients are still at risk. They are the immunocompromised, very young children who are not eligible for the vaccine, people with pre-existing conditions, and others. This population needs to be protected.
Plus, scientists are still learning about long Covid, which can last for weeks, months, or longer. Symptoms can be mild or debilitating, and can include extreme fatigue and “brain fog.” Even mild and asymptomatic infections can result in long Covid, underlining the need for preventing transmission.
Nurses need to be protected in order to continue to fight for our patients. We continue to fight for safe working conditions and for the Occupational Health and Safety Administration to issue a Covid-19 permanent standard to protect health care workers. Other essential workers also need to be protected in the workplace.
This is why we cannot abandon masks and public health measures. We are all in this together.