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Opinion: Coronavirus holidays return — what a difference a year doesn’t make

If you were teleported here directly from last year, you would hardly notice the difference, except that a lot of people today seem content ignoring the sick and dying

Tiffanie Tabor tests a youngster wishing to remain unidentified for COVID-19.
Tiffanie Tabor tests a youngster wishing to remain unidentified for COVID-19 in the Cottonwood Heights City Hall parking lot on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021. Thousands of Utahns continue to test positive as the holidays approach.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

If German Health Minister Jens Spahn wanted attention this week, he picked the right words.

Germans, he said, would by the end of winter “probably be either vaccinated, recovered or dead.”

Austria, meanwhile, reverted to a major lockdown this month in the face of a fourth wave of COVID-19, which now has Europe in its grip once again as it seems to pingpong from continent to continent.

People reacted the way people do — they protested, sometimes violently, in thick crowds almost certain to spread the virus further.

In Utah, Gov. Spencer Cox used language that, while not as stark as Spahn’s, still got to the point. “Ongoing high levels of community transmission continue to jeopardize the health of Utahns statewide,” he said.

My, what a difference a year doesn’t make.

If you were teleported here directly from last Thanksgiving, you would hardly notice the difference, except that a lot of people today seem content ignoring the sick and dying. A new Yahoo News/YouGov poll found 74% of Americans believe their lives have returned to at least somewhat normal. Of those who haven’t been vaccinated, 65% rank COVID-19 as either a minor threat or no threat at all.

And yet, the numbers tell a different story. We may be living like normal, but the world around us is anything but — much as it was last Thanksgiving.

One year ago, states were struggling as to how to act.

Gary Herbert, who then was governor of Utah, lifted his own ban on social gatherings involving people from separate households ahead of Thanksgiving, because he said case counts were leveling off, a dubious statement.

In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown took a different approach. She told people to call the police if they saw more than six people entering a neighbor’s house for the holiday.

Regardless, people in both states did basically what they wanted.

To put things in perspective, Utah’s rolling seven-day average of new cases at the time was just below 4,000, although fluctuating daily. As of a week ago, it was 1,618, according to a state website. But a year ago, intensive care units were 90.8% full. Today, they are 91% full.

And this time around, few people are talking about limits on gatherings, although officials recommend keeping numbers small and windows open.

Airports are full. Highways are crowded. The most heard piece of advice is to get vaccinated, and if you’re vaccinated, to get a booster.

Which also remains the biggest problem. In the United States, 57.95% of eligible people have been fully vaccinated, according to ourworldindata.org. In Germany, it’s 67.43%. In Utah, it’s 55%.

Utah has performed dismally compared to other states, ranking sixth in total cases per capita, at 183,021 per 1 million people, according to worldometers.info. The death rate is low, but long-term symptoms of the virus can be debilitating.

It has been said that no one, especially any politician, looks good in a pandemic. That is particularly true in a hyperpartisan atmosphere where misinformation can run around the world in the morning before the truth can tie its shoes, and where so many people have avoided vaccines that could have helped end this mess.

But it’s also true because science has evolved its understanding of the disease while the public quickly grew tired and suspicious of scientists, and of limits enacted in the name of public safety.

Which is why we find ourselves in a world where attending a church often requires a mask, while shouting in a sardine-tight crowd at a football game does not.

Don’t think Europe’s current woes can’t return here. A chart the New York Times assembled from various agencies shows how, during the course of the pandemic, nearly every continent has had its share of spikes and lulls. January was the worst month, so far, in the United States and Canada, followed by a June decline and a September spike.

And now, cases are rising again.

Some experts say herd immunity may no longer be possible because of new variants and waning immunity levels that leave even fully vaccinated people vulnerable.

Germany’s health minister may have been overdramatic. Then again, people in the United States a year ago might not have foreseen the nation approaching 800,000 deaths by the next Thanksgiving, especially if you told them several reliable vaccines would be available free of charge.

We didn’t have to be in this situation. Let’s hope we aren’t still in it a year from now.