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Opinion: Do Americans have the resolve to face COVID-19 head-on?

New Zealand shut down this week because of one case of COVID-19. Here, hospitals and ICUs are full, yet people act as if there is no pandemic.

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New Zealand’s prime minister speaks to Parliament about the nation’s new COVID-19 lockdown.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to Parliament in Wellington, New Zealand, on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021. Ardern announced a strict lockdown of at least three days for the entire country and at least seven days in Auckland and Coromandel after identifying the first infection of the delta variant.

Mark Mitchell, New Zealand Herald via Associated Press

New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, sounded so resolute, so matter of fact in her belief that what she was about to say would sound alarming.

“We have a positive case of COVID-19 in the community,” she said. 

A positive case, as in “one.” And the “community” was all of New Zealand, even though the one case involved a 58-year-old man in Auckland.

And no, this wasn’t early in 2020. It was earlier this week.

Then she followed with this: The entire country would be in lockdown for three days, while the Auckland area would be shut down for a week. “Going hard and early has worked for us before,” she said.

I remember when people here sounded just as resolute. 

Watching her took me back to that day in March of 2020 when Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive and the entire sports world immediately shut down, followed by just about everything else. 

“You’re all safe,” the Oklahoma Thunder’s arena announcer told the crowd that night when the game was canceled. 

Were they? I have wondered since how many of those people ended up eventually contracting the virus, and how many died. How many are suffering long-term debilitating effects? Oklahoma ranks 22nd among states in deaths per capita, according to worldometers.info.

And yet today, with Utah once again averaging more than 1,000 new cases per day in a seven-day average, having hit 2,549 deaths (including 12 announced on Wednesday), I’m wondering where the resoluteness has gone.

Nationally, more than 130,000 new cases are being reported each day, and the total deaths from COVID-19 have surpassed 600,000. Hospitals are full. Last week, Intermountain Healthcare announced that its intensive care units were at 102% of capacity and its acute medical and surgical floors were at 98%.

Making matters worse, new data from seven states, including Utah, show a rise in cases among people who are vaccinated. 

The New York Times this week quoted the chairman of the department of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. “Remember when the early vaccine studies came out, it was like nobody gets hospitalized, nobody dies,” he said. “That clearly isn’t true.”

They aren’t as susceptible as unvaccinated people, but they aren’t totally in the clear, either.

Yet, football teams are gearing up for capacity crowds. Stores no longer require masks. Parents protest at school boarding meetings when doctors suggest requiring students to wear masks. And Utah’s vaccination rate was at 45.8% as of Tuesday, according to ourworldindata.org.

State lawmakers have made it clear they don’t want any more mask mandates. Some politicians are pushing against that, and some universities and businesses are requiring masks or vaccinations, but mostly it seems as if people don’t care.

I’m wondering, have we given up, or just become complacent? Have we learned to live with COVID-19 as just one more part of life, the way we adapt to pain in a knee or some other joint that caused alarm when we first felt it? Do we just accept that some of us will get sick and a few will die? 

Or are we so blinded by distrust and false information that we think it’s all a hoax being fabricated so some sinister group can profit?

In July, a Gallup poll asked Americans whether it would be best for healthy people to stay home as much as possible or to resume their normal lives. Fifty-nine percent said they should resume normal activities. Only 29% said they were at least somewhat worried about getting the virus. When asked how long they felt the current disruptions to travel, school, work and public events would continue, 41% said through the end of this year, while 42% said longer than that.

I’m not suggesting we shut down the economy, just that we have the resolve to take precautions against this quickly spreading outbreak.

Clearly, many Americans are resigned to live amid COVID-19 for the long haul. Just as clearly, many of them don’t understand that vaccinations, masks and other measures might keep the virus from continually mutating, and might return us to the days before that ill-fated 2020 NBA game much sooner.

I know what many of you are saying. The disruptions, the masks and the general state of alarm are bad for the economy. Washington doesn’t need another excuse to rack up more debts in stimulus payments. 

All true. 

And yet, I marvel at New Zealand. Reports earlier this summer showed the economy there doing well. The nation was about to raise interest rates before the latest case hit — which, by the way, has risen to 21 cases as I write this.

The nation has seen only 26 deaths since the pandemic started.

Yes, it’s an island nation with only 5 million people, making it easy to quarantine itself. And yes, it also has an extremely low vaccination rate, which is a problem.

But it also has a leader who clearly hasn’t lost her resolve.

Jay Evensen is the Senior Editorial Columnist for the Deseret News.