Two years inside Covid-19, where do we go from here?
Two years inside Covid-19, where do we go from here?

Two years inside Covid-19, where do we go from here?

Two years inside Covid-19, where do we go from here?

by Irwin Redlener and Sean Hansen
|March 15, 2022

Photo: dmbosstone/ Flickr CC

Exactly two years ago last week, then-Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency in New York when it quickly became clear that the state had become the epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic. Days later, the World Health Organization Covid-19 declared a global pandemic – with little knowledge of the long-term consequences we may face. Fast forward to today, and it’s hard to see how far we’ve come: over 963,000 US Covid deaths, 79 million confirmed cases and hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations.

As the nature of Covid-19 has evolved, so has our understanding of what it means to live through a deadly pandemic. Social distance, mask mandates and vaccinations have become essential tools to fight the virus – in addition to the various Covid treatments now available and an extensive testing infrastructure. But two years into the greatest threat to public health we have seen in over a century, many wonder: Where are we going from here?

We are currently in the midst of an important transition period in the pandemic. The number of cases and deaths has dropped significantly, especially compared to the record-breaking Omicron rise just months ago. Hospital admissions are also at their lowest level in almost a year. With increased immunity today, thanks to vaccine boosters and a less lethal virus strain, researchers believe that Covid-19 may in some cases be less lethal than influenza. The trends are promising.

Reflecting the current situation, New York City Mayor Eric Adams recently lifted mask restrictions in public schools and evidence of vaccination for indoor dining, gyms and elsewhere – stating that “We win. Let’s celebrate it.” And these are emotions expressed across the United States when governors and local jurisdictions withdraw mandates for vaccinations and masks. But many public health experts are concerned that we are moving too fast to declare an end to the pandemic. So before we jump the champagne cork, a word or two of caution.

Despite the relatively promising prospects for numbers, there is cause for concern. The United States continues to watch 1,200 deaths a day, where the nation is rapidly approaching one million total deaths since the start of the pandemic. Mutations in the virus also threaten to produce new variants, especially in areas with low vaccination rates, where the virus can mutate rapidly.

Globally, the situation is also uncertain. After cases fell sharply in the wake of Omicron hikes this winter, the number of cases is starting to fall cross up again in Europe and Asia, especially since 1 March. Western European countries like Germany see theirs highest number ever of daily cases, while Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has similarly coincided with high cases in both countries (although Ukraine has stopped reporting daily cases due to the war).

How should we approach this new transition point in the pandemic in the future? In the event of the emergence of a highly contagious new variant, mask and vaccine mandates that have been relaxed should be put back in place. Vaccination campaigns must also remain a central pillar of our strategy, not only across the United States, but especially in regions of the world where a large portion of the global population remains unvaccinated.

Perhaps just as important is the fact that the US government – including federal, state and local – must prepare for the real possibility of a whole new pandemic emerging. This means storage of emergency medical equipment such as personal protective equipment and life-saving fans, which was in short supply in early 2020. In addition, there is a need for better coordination and management from public officials, hospitals and healthcare facilities to streamline data sharing and coordination efforts. And internationally, we need improved disease surveillance and global cooperation to quickly detect future threats and respond collectively.

Incredibly, the U.S. House of Representatives last week eliminated the entire Covid-19 budget request coming from the Biden administration. This politically driven budget decision makes it impossible for the administration to buy and distribute much-needed vaccines, tests and treatments that local governments need.

As the pandemic continues, it has already shown how disorderly, self-serving and unfair the world system can be. But it has also shown how innovative our scientists and companies can be, how resilient our healthcare professionals and communities can be, and how a deadly pandemic threat can unite a community. If we want to be better equipped to face a new variant or a whole new pandemic, we need to lean on tackling fiasco of the coordination, preparation and political leadership revealed by Covid-19.

Irwin Redlener, MD, is a senior researcher at Columbia University’s Climate School and director of the Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative at Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness.

Sean Hansen is an employee at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness.


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