KEARNEY — Never let a good crisis go to waste.
That’s what Aravind Menon, epidemiologist at the Two Rivers Public Health Department, says as he looks back at COVID-19.
He knows COVID isn’t over. COVID cases have been quietly climbing this summer, and the Two Rivers’ COVID risk dial has sat in the “moderate” range since July 1, climbing from the “low” range since late March. The dial has four categories: low, moderate, extreme and pandemic.
Between July 11 and 24, Nebraska had 7,629 new cases of COVID, likely the B5 strain, Menon said, noting that that strain has been circulating around the state.
In the last seven days, as of Friday, Buffalo County had 114 new cases, followed by 28 in Dawson County, 33 in Phelps County and 14 in Kearney County. Gosper, Harlan and Franklin counties had no new cases.
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New cases are far higher in nearby Adams County (Hastings) with 90 cases in the past week, Hall County (Grand Island) with 151 cases and Lincoln County (North Platte) with 79.
Menon noted that there has been no spike in hospitalizations in Two Rivers. As of July 25, CHI Health Good Samaritan had six COVID patients. Kearney Regional Medical Center had three. KRMC had a total of 11 COVID patients in July, 14 in June, 11 in May and four in April.
“There does not seem to be any evidence indicating that the current [COVID] scenario is significantly more risky than earlier,” Menon said.
Vaccines: A big differenceWhile COVID still lingers, Menon feels optimistic about its decline and how the world can move forward.
“If we give humanity a grade, I’d settle on a B or B-. COVID killed between three and eight million people around the world, but that could have easily been 15 million,” he said.
He believes vaccines have made a difference even though only 53% of the Two Rivers population of 97,132 has been vaccinated and (mostly) boosted. Most COVID patients no longer require hospitalization, and anti-viral drugs, if prescribed at the onset of illness, can ease symptoms.
“The crisis is not abated, but we should think about how we are responding to it, how to be better prepared and how to strengthen our institutions, do more research and raise money for research,” he said. “We need people to work on emergent health threats, and from an information and communications standpoint, we need to create unimpeachable information,” he said.
That “unimpeachable information” comment stems from the glut of misinformation that spread during the height of the pandemic and remains on many social media sites.
“We need to be honest,” Menon said. “Did our worst predictions come true? Could we avert some, if not all, of the most horrible situations? Have we learned any lessons?”
He said, “We are no longer in the spring of 2020 when COVID was at its worst. We can assume the vast majority of people have been vaccinated or infected or both, so we’re not ‘COVID-naive.’ The assumptions we held in 2020 have clearly have to be modified,” he said.
COVID deaths drop
Deaths are on the decline as well. Two Rivers has charted 206 deaths since March 20, 2020, but none since May 20 of this year.
That figure of 206 is higher than what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. Its COVID data tracker says Two Rivers has had 194 COVID deaths, including 104 in Buffalo County, 44 in Dawson County, 14 in Phelps County, 13 in Franklin County, nine in Kearney County, seven in Gosper County and three in Harlan County.
Statewide, Nebraska has had 512,000 cases of COVID and 4,363 deaths, but Nebraska fared well among the 50 states in handling COVID, Menon said.
He cited a report from the National Bureau of Economic Research in April, which ranked Nebraska second on a report card for all 50 states in the country. It compared, in terms of COVID, health outcomes, economic performance and impact on education. Education was critical: Most Nebraska children and teens remained in school during the pandemic, unlike many students in other states, the report noted.
“If we look at ideal responses and outcomes in each category, Nebraska is in the top 10 among states. We didn’t see enormous death rates. I think we managed to weather the pandemic without the kind of massive disruption to lives and lifestyle that we saw in other states,” he said.
Menon believes experts and others should study data to see what has been learned because a pandemic of another kind is likely in another 20 to 30 years. “Pandemics are part of human history,” he said.
Vermont did very well in handling the pandemic, he said, while California and Michigan did not. “There’s an old adage of ‘never let a good crisis go to waste,’ but we’ve used this new crisis to reposition our existing stereotypes. However, I caution everyone against simplistic conclusions,” he said.
A voice of hope
Calling COVID “the first true global challenge we’ve seen in this century,” he said the world has “two primary ways of keeping citizens safe.”
The western democratic model, used by the U.S. and other democracies, gives people power and hopes that those closest to a problem will come up with a solution. Information in such models comes from the bottom up, he said.
The other model is the Chinese or authoritarian model, where authorities do surveillance on everyone in order to control the behavior of the population. Right now, due to COVID, China has locked down an entire province of 60 million people. “That would be like locking down the entire West Coast. We could never do that here,” Menon said.
He acknowledged that it may appear that the Chinese model was more efficient in terms of keeping people safe from COVID, but he said the COVID death toll in China was likely far, far higher than what the Chinese officially reported.
“The best COVID vaccines came out of democratic countries, like the United Kingdom and the U.S.,” Menon said.
Because scientists and labs in the U.S. were free to work on vaccines, they developed much more effective ones than many other countries did, he said.
“Maybe you need to have free societies, where information is not controlled. We don’t control you; you make your choices. We foster innovation. Maybe in the messiness of democracy, that is the trade-off,” he said.
While the U.S. population has “a million different opinions” for every issue and problem, it also fosters creativity and innovation. “As a people we should concentrate on the latter. Although there are pitfalls, we should invest further in institutions that can give us kind of framework to make technological advancements,” he said.
He noted that long before COVID, scientists had studied coronaviruses such as SARS and MERS for 10-12 years. “This was truly selfless work. We have a system that rewards knowledge and inquiry. That’s the system I’d like to be in. We can be proud that we have institutions that allow us to do this,” he said.