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Opinion: 1 million deaths later, how do we evaluate our response to COVID-19?

One million deaths is a sad milestone. Could the nation have done better? Can we do better going forward?

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Registered nurse Seth Christensen is pictured filling a syringe with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine

Registered nurse Seth Christensen fills a syringe with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the Mountain America Exposition Center in Sandy on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

As of this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting 1 million people in the United States have died from COVID-19

In some ways, the deaths have come so gradually that many Americans, like proverbial frogs in an increasingly heated pot, stopped taking notice of them. In other, more frustrating ways, they have been minimized, even trivialized or cast in doubt by people who allowed the worst pandemic in at least a century to become a political issue

For too many others, the tragedy of a deadly pandemic is horribly real, and it has left holes that can never be filled.

Twenty-six months after governments in this country began taking proactive measures to stop the spread, this grim milestone ought to make every American take stock. Have we, individually, done all we can to minimize the spread? Have we helped or hurt other people? How will we act going forward?

Many Americans know people who died because of COVID-19. Maybe they had a lot of compromising health factors — illness, obesity, age or some other issue that made them vulnerable — but without COVID-19, they would likely still be here. Many more have had the illness and are suffering from long-term effects, or know someone who is. And the cases keep coming.

Evidence shows another wave is underway, perhaps with cases that are much milder than in previous waves. But the virus is constantly evolving and seeking ways to penetrate immune systems.

Dr. Angela Dunn, who became the face of Utah’s pandemic response two years ago as the state epidemiologist, and who has since become executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department, told the Deseret News/KSL editorial board on Monday that she tested positive two weeks ago.

“I can’t believe it took me two years to get it in my family, to be honest with you,” she said. ”I have two little kids who’ve been going to school this whole time.”

Dunn, as could be expected, was up-to-date on her vaccinations. That wasn’t enough to ward off the virus, but it did keep her symptoms mild, she said. The coming summer months may not be as mild for the many who haven’t been vaccinated.

“We had so many people get infected during omicron that I think a lot of people are riding the coattails of that natural immunity,” she said. But that immunity is beginning to wear off. “So we’re coming up against a summer where, if people were relying on that natural immunity for omicron, it’s gone, for the most part.”

Many Americans may be tired of hearing it, but the only way out of this seemingly endless pandemic rests on an individual choice: Get vaccinated, and you can live a mostly normal life, participating in normal activities. Don’t get vaccinated, and you not only endanger your own health, you endanger the health of those who, for a variety of reasons, cannot obtain a vaccine. Unless, that is, you seriously curtail your own interactions and wear a mask.

For some reason, that remains a hard sell for a skeptical segment of the public.

Dunn said the lack of public trust in official institutions “is way bigger than public health.” The country was already divided in 2020, and that “kind of set ourselves up for a perfect storm when the epidemic started, unfortunately.”

She’s right about that. She’s also right when she characterizes the public dialog at the start of the pandemic as quickly becoming “public health versus the economy, and public health versus politics, rather than that we’re all on the same team — we don’t want to crash the economy; we also don’t want people to die unnecessarily.”

That realization doesn’t make the current milestone any less sad.

One million people may not seem like much in a nation with approximately 330 million people, but it is greater than the individual populations of seven states. It is nearly one-third the population of Utah

It represents a sea of individuals who loved and laughed and dreamed, and who are no longer with us. 

COVID-19, however, does remain with us, and our choices going forward still matter.