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Wack: Current stage of coronavirus pandemic ‘perhaps, the end of the beginning’

As we ease out of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic and resume some measure of normal activities, it’s important to review what happened and where we’re headed.

This famous Winston Churchill quote has been used frequently, but it bears repeating: “Now, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

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First, Gov. Larry Hogan is a hero. His early decisive action, informed by the best public health data and expertise available at the time, saved many thousands of lives. By now, almost everyone in our community either knows about cases in our community, whether through personal association or media coverage. It’s not the flu. This is a new viral infection that we are just beginning to understand.

For example, we now have better data about just how serious COVID-19 infection can be. An otherwise healthy adult hospitalized with COVID-19 results in a longer stay than the flu, and COVID-19 hospitalizations overall cost far more than the average symptomatic flu hospitalization. That’s not to say everything in the State of Maryland has been perfect. We still don’t have enough testing capacity, and the governor’s piecemeal approach to opening, though politically popular with the business community in some parts of the state, creates difficult challenges for local governments still swamped with active infections. The task of balancing economic interests with public health necessities is nearly impossible, and Hogan is doing the best he can.

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Overall, Carroll County has much to be proud of. Our widely compliant approach to social distancing is why we have a currently low infection rate compared to other parts of the state. We have an average of COVID-19 cases per capita well below all our neighboring counties. Out and about, it is gratifying to see our friends and neighbors complying with prudent public health practices without the drama and histrionics seen in other communities. It works, and it is saving lives.

We are still learning about this new virus. For example, several months ago, the conventional wisdom was that children are not significantly affected by COVID-19. That is no longer true. Some subsets of children, and it’s not totally clear just who they are, can develop a severe, life-threatening inflammatory reaction to the infection. This also appears to be happening with young adults.

Fortunately, social distancing and wearing masks works. This only makes sense: the virus doesn’t have legs or wings. It is a hitchhiker, riding along in our bodies, jumping to other bodies through droplets from our mouths or through the touch of a hand. Keep people apart, and viral spread slows down. Slow down the spread, and we buy more time to study the virus, develop treatments, resupply protective equipment and keep more people alive.

There is bad news. Until sufficient numbers of people develop effective immunity, either from exposure to the virus or from a vaccine, friends and family in our community will continue falling ill, and some of them will die from coronavirus infection.

The federal government response continues to be fragmented, inefficient, sometimes ineffective and always inconsistent. This leads straight to the top, with the president still insisting the pandemic will magically just disappear, threatening state governors and playing games with essential resources, even while hundreds, even thousands, of Americans die every day.

There’s no question the virus is still spreading in communities throughout the U.S. This means mass gatherings this summer will result in a new upsurge of infections and deaths. There is also evidence of repeat infections, meaning that until a vaccine is available and widely administered, we will continue with outbreaks and shutdowns. A repeat of restrictions is practically certain for this fall.

So far, our community has risen to the challenge of this pandemic, along with our state government. We have a way to go, but if we continue listening to public health guidance and responsible elected officials, and complying with reasonable recommendations, we can limit the worst impacts. This, too, shall pass.

Dr. Robert Wack writes from Westminster. He can be reached at Robert.p.wack@gmail.com.

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