On May 16, San Mateo County Health Department chief Louise Rogers quietly issued a brief statement noting the recent end of the federal Public Health Emergency. She called it “another milestone” and shared dense links filled with sometimes confusing information on the state of COVID-19 infections.
Goodbye and good luck?
Well, no. And Rogers was clear about that even as she acknowledged most of us have moved on. She noted that as many as 30 San Mateo County residents are hospitalized as a result of the COVID-19 virus every day. Think about that: If 30 people here were hospitalized every day due to bee stings or autonomous vehicle crashes or something of the sort, we would all be on edge. We’ve become blasé about COVID-19 even though it has killed 753 of our neighbors in San Mateo County and more than 101,000 Californians.
But things have gotten better. Much, much better. In December, state health officials counted 21,855 people in California hospitals due to the virus. Today there are likely fewer than 2,000.
If the health emergency is coming to an end, what did we learn? Well, for one thing, that health may be the greatest privilege of all. Consider:
▸The death rate for Latino Californians is 8 percent higher than for the population at-large. That is partly due to the fact that many Latino people put themselves at risk by virtue of doing “essential” work — that is to say work that was essential to the rest of us. They might also tend to live in more dense housing situations.
▸The case rate is 82 percent higher for Pacific Islanders than for the entire population.
▸Black people were more likely than others to die when they caught the virus. State data shows that 299 Black people died for every 100,000 people; the rate was 250 for every 100,000 people when looking at the entire population.
▸Those who made less than $40,000 were 18 percent more likely to die than those who made more than $40,000. Again, access to health care and the inability to skip in-person work likely played a role.
We also learned that a lifetime of health issues — sometimes but not always related to racial and financial equity concerns — leave some more vulnerable than others to the devastating effects of a pandemic or other illnesses. People with diabetes, obesity, a physical disability or what sociologists call “adverse childhood experiences” all suffered disproportionately from COVID-19.
And we learned that, while we may suffer differently depending on our underlying conditions and experiences, our ability to transcend a pandemic requires us all to work for the common good. Most of us honored the suggestions of real experts. We masked up when told to, got vaccinations and boosters, and did our level best to lessen the spread. Our response has been imperfect to be sure, but we learned a lot about taking care of ourselves and others.
A year ago, Bay Area health officers like Rogers were urging residents to mask up again as the region experienced the highest case rate in the state. The U.S. had just passed the 1 million deaths mark. We are grateful to be reporting better news these days, and mindful of lessons learned.
Reflect? It sucked.
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