The U.S is now two and a half years into the COVID-19 pandemic and while we have thankfully made tremendous progress since the hell of those dark and chaotic early days, many of the most disturbing events from that period haven’t receded all that far in the rear-view mirror.
It seems like just yesterday that hospitals and morgues were overflowing, even as then-President Donald Trump was promising that the crisis would magically “disappear” by Easter of 2020, and he was issuing a seemingly endless series of scientifically invalid observations and statements.
Then, of course, were the rancorous protests of the misguided “reopen” advocates, who demanded an end to the application of proven public health practices, like face masks and social distancing, even before scientists had worked heroically to produce and deploy vaccines and therapies.
And remember the many conservative politicians, activists and “think tanks” in North Carolina who unleashed a relentless fusillade of invective at Gov. Roy Cooper for his supposedly “tyrannical” refusal to follow the lead of other (mostly southern) governors who had plunged ahead with reopening while the pandemic continued to rage?
As early as April 2020 – just a few weeks into the pandemic – a commentator for the Raleigh-based conservative group, the John Locke Foundation, was already foolishly calling on Cooper to follow the lead of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and reopen the state.
Today the picture is much brighter. Not only has the wide deployment of vaccines made a huge and positive difference, but science continues to advance. As Dr. David Wohl of the Division of Infectious Diseases at UNC Health explained in a recent NC Policy Watch interview, the latest COVID vaccine booster represents a huge scientific breakthrough.
For the first time, we now have a safe and powerful vaccine that specifically targets the dominant COVID virus of the moment – the BA.5 omicron variant.
In urging all eligible North Carolinians to sign up for the new vaccine, Wohl likened it to the latest version of the iPhone – something that’s vastly superior to the original – and noted the happy news that COVID boosters will likely soon become like the flu vaccine: an annual ritual for health-conscious people.
As welcome as the latest developments and the progress of the past 18 months or so have been however, it’s worth reflecting on some of the lessons we learned early in the crisis. One of the most obvious is this: Thank goodness for the wisdom and steadfast courage that Gov. Cooper and then-Health and Human Services Secretary, Dr. Mandy Cohen, displayed in resisting calls to prematurely abandon the enforcement of commonsense public health and safety protocols.
As a recent report published by analysts at the website Wallet Hub pointed out last month, when it comes to assessing how states responded to the COVID crisis, North Carolina is near the top.
The analysts looked at five key metrics — vaccination rate, positive testing rate, hospitalization rate, death rate and level of community transmission — and ranked all 50 states plus the District of Columbia. Their conclusion: North Carolina ranked second with a score of 75.32 – just below Vermont’s 75.91.
In contrast, Georgia – one of the early reopeners – came in 48th, with a score of 18.92. Tennessee came in 49th with a score of 16.67. Abbott’s Texas came in 31st with a score of 48.12.
The most important metric is per capita death rate. And while various analysts measure this number slightly differently, North Carolina consistently ranks among the best in this category, while its quicker-to-reopen southern neighbors rank near the bottom.
Georgia, which has a population almost identical to North Carolina’s, has endured more than 40,000 COVID deaths. North Carolina’s figure is just over 26,000.
Similarly, Tennessee, with a population of around two-thirds the size of North Carolina’s, has suffered more than 27,000 deaths.
In other words, if North Carolina had suffered the per capita death rates seen in Georgia and Tennessee – which were roughly 50%-60% higher – more than 14,000 additional North Carolinians would be dead today. That’s roughly equivalent to the entire population of the city of Henderson.
The bottom line: North Carolina’s response to the pandemic was and has never been perfect. State leaders and public health officials have made mistakes. Some of the announced rules and guidelines have been hard to follow. At times, it was pretty clear that decisions to ease restrictions were issued more in response to public opinion than the best public health and safety practices.
But on the whole, the statistics show that the Cooper administration deserves enormous credit for having resisted the braying and name-calling directed its way by so many voices on the right. Indeed, if another elected official in modern North Carolina history is responsible for a more important and impressive accomplishment that saving the lives of 14,000-plus people, it’s hard to imagine what it would be.