Friday marked “two years since the first two cases of the novel coronavirus were reported in Lancaster County and Pennsylvania saw its first death,” LNP | LancasterOnline’s Nicole C. Brambila and Enelly Betancourt reported in last Sunday’s edition. Anna S. Stauffer, a licensed practical nurse, was the first COVID-19 death in Lancaster County; She died on March 26, 2020 at the age of 83. The virus, Brambila and Betancourt noted, “has since claimed more than 1,600 residents in the county.”
In this unforeseen third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are hopeful but also cautious.
As LNP | LancasterOnline’s Colin Evans reported in Wednesday’s edition, “The pace of the decline in COVID-19 hospital admissions and cases in Lancaster County has slowed further after weeks of sharp declines following January’s record-breaking surge in infections, according to data from the state Department of Health. County COVID-19 indicators remain at similar levels to late July and early August 2021.”
He noted that in early August, “cases, hospitalizations, and deaths began to rise after hitting their pandemic lows in mid-July.”
So, are we in a lull right now before the highly transmissible Omicron subvariant known as BA.2—or some other variant—seals another wave of infections? Or are we finally on the other side of the pandemic?
In a column published in the Perspective column last Sunday, Dr. Leon Kraybill hopeful on signals we may be ‘returning to life less controlled by infection worries’
The Lancaster County geriatrician has taken a clear-eyed look at what has helped and undermined public health over the past two years.
Denying the seriousness of COVID-19 hasn’t helped us, he noted, nor has politicizing the virus, vaccines, and other mitigation efforts.
Kraybill reminded us that some preventative measures — like the early lockdowns — “came with heavy personal and community costs of isolation, depression, separation, financial strain, business closures and educational disruption… we had no other good, viable, and ethical options” before us two years.
COVID-19 has claimed the lives of more than 970,000 Americans. “If we hadn’t responded with the necessary interventions, there could have been 2 million, or 10 million, or 20 million deaths, and the weight of grief would have been far greater,” Kraybill wrote.
Fortunately, much more is now known about how to treat COVID-19 infection, and we have safe and effective vaccines that drastically reduce the likelihood that vaccinated people will need to be hospitalized if they do become infected.
Kraybill suggested – and we wholeheartedly agree – that we should prepare for future health crises by following this recipe: “Put aside our divisive opinions and focus on health and the well-being of the community,” wrote he. “Make community decisions based on scientific and medical principles rather than politics. Established a county health department with medically trained staff to oversee and advise on Lancaster County’s specific needs. Choose your sources of truth very carefully – are they based on experience and training, and is your well-being their true motivation? And when we inevitably disagree, choose kindness, decency and openness.”
The toll of the pandemic
It hurts to think of where we were two years ago, locked up, worried about what was to come. Too many of us have lost loved ones to the virus and changed our lives forever.
As Brambila and Betancourt wrote last Sunday, Lancaster County residents who have died from COVID-19 “have served in presidents, attended Ivy League schools and fought in Vietnam. They were teachers, direct attendants and farmers.”
They included soul mates and childhood sweethearts Joseph and Eleanor Piascinksi, from West Lampeter Parish, who met in kindergarten, were married for 61 years and died of COVID-19 five days apart before Christmas in 2020.
Then there are those who still suffer from symptoms of COVID-19 – long COVID – months after infection.
That includes Kyle Schlinkman, a licensed practical nurse in the East Donegal community, who “still has trouble breathing, even on constant oxygen,” and keeping food down, Brambila and Betancourt reported.
We’ve thought about COVID for a long time since we first found out about it. That’s one reason we’ve contradicted claims that the coronavirus poses no serious threat to children. It may have been a lesser threat, but even a mild case of COVID-19 can cause lingering symptoms — including neurological ones — that could impact a child’s health, education and future.
We have also been fully committed to mitigation measures such as mask-wearing and vaccination because we have seen the toll – not just physically, but emotionally and mentally – this pandemic has taken on healthcare workers.
The healthcare workers
As Lancaster County Intensive Care Unit Nurse Nikkee Asashon spoke to LNP last Sunday | LancasterOnline wrote: “Those of us in the healthcare sector caring for COVID-19 patients have had to reconcile seeing multiple people die every day, despite our best and most intense efforts to save them. We lived in fear every day when we came home from work, fearing that we might bring the virus home and infect our families. The daily sense of loss, failure and exhaustion has created such trauma that many people have decided to quit their healthcare jobs to protect their own mental health.”
Shockingly, early and widespread praise for healthcare workers turned to anger and resentment from those who refused to accept the seriousness of COVID-19. Public health officials have also been victims of abuse.
A new study led by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health identified 1,499 clear reports of harassment in local health departments across the United States during the first 11 months of the pandemic.
Healthcare workers, Asashon noted, have been accused of fear-mongering for “exaggerating the importance of social distancing, masking and COVID-19 vaccination.” So many of us fell silent and just got on with our jobs.”
But, she continued, “we felt it. We have felt the betrayal on top of the pain and trauma we have already experienced, for no training or education can prepare you to navigate a pandemic. No book or clinical experience can prepare you to witness so many deaths in such a short space of time.”
The injustice of this betrayal is immense. Where would we be without health workers?
Asashon said she prays that people “who have lost loved ones in the last two years have found peace or are on the way to finding it. … Most of all, I hope that all those who have lost their lives to this virus have not done so in vain and that we all realize that we can and must do better.”
Like Kraybill, Asashon desired unity in future health crises and kindness.
We too share these hopes.
Alionso Avril, a respiratory therapist and pulmonary services team leader at WellSpan Ephrata Community Hospital, also wrote powerfully this past Sunday of the past two years.
Respiratory therapists are among the unsung heroes of this pandemic.
“Because COVID-19 is a virus that causes severe pneumonia, respiratory therapists have been on the front lines during the pandemic – there when a patient was put on a ventilator, there to encourage a patient during sometimes uncomfortable therapy that is affecting the des Patient vibrates lungs to loosen secretions to monitor and adjust treatments,” Avril explained.
He wrote that “the difficult part for us respiratory therapists and everyone who cares for COVID-19 patients is that while we’re doing everything we can to save our patients, sometimes it’s not enough.”
In the darkest days of the pandemic, he told his team members, “We are doing the Lord’s work. This is what the good Lord wants from us, that we take care of these patients and do our best.”
Indeed they did and continue to do so, and we are grateful to all the healthcare workers who risked their lives to save others.
Avril said the pandemic has made him “appreciate life more. It made me appreciate everything I have: the love of my family, the love of what I do, and the fact that I can make a difference in someone’s life.”
There is a lesson for all of us if we choose to learn it.