By Ted Anthony
The conversations went like this: It will be just a few days. It can be kept at bay. There will be some inconvenience, sure, but the world will merely be paused — just a short break, out of an abundance of caution, and certainly not any kind of major grinding to a halt. Certainly not for two years.
Certainly not for hundreds of thousands of Americans who were among us at that moment in mid-March 2020 — who lived through the beginning, watched it, worried about it (or didn’t), and who, plain and simple, aren’t here anymore.
“Just a temporary moment of time,” the man who was then president of the United States insisted. Just a few days. Just a few weeks. Just a few months. Just a few years.
The fact is that on March 12, 2020, no one really knew how it would play out. How could they?
Flattening the curve — such a novel term then, such a frozen moment of a phrase today — seemed genuinely possible two years ago this weekend, when Major League Baseball’s spring training games trickled to an end with their season suddenly postponed, when universities told students to stay away, when Congress — astonishingly — began to talk about whether it would be able to work from home.
“We would recommend that there not be large crowds,” the nation’s top infectious disease researcher told Congress two years ago Friday, presaging two years of arguments over that exact statement. His name was Anthony Fauci, and he would become one of Pandemic America’s most polarizing figures, caught between provable science and charges of alarmism and incompetence and malevolence, even occasionally from the former president himself.
And for a while, there weren’t large crowds. Except when there were.
For weeks in those early days, Americans in many corners of the republic all but shut down. Faces disappeared as masks went up against the invisible adversary — if you could actually obtain them. Hand sanitizer was squirted so liberally that some distilleries pivoted from whiskey to alcohol antiseptics. People discussed ventilator shortages over family meals. Zoom became, for the nation, a household word; suddenly your colleagues were arrayed on a screen in front of you like personalized, workaday “Brady Bunch” opening credits.
All these things were new once.
In the weeks that followed, as the scope of things revealed itself gradually, there were questions we knew to ask, and questions we didn’t.
The ones we didn’t: How to combat the extreme mountains of mis- and disinformation surrounding the virus and the vaccines that emerged from the scientific community astonishingly quickly? How to manage the anger, and the national division, that poured from the political arena into the protracted virus discussion and burned in conversational trash fires across the land? How to navigate the emotional rubble of an entire generation of kids whose lives and educations would be upended?
Those questions are the ones that, right now, don’t seem outdated. They seem fresh and immediate, and they remain largely unanswered today — a time when it can be difficult to summon memories of the beginning of this thing because of all that’s happened since, and all that’s still happening.
The American memory is a strange beast. The nation, which is younger than most societies on the planet, loves to trumpet its storyline of action but has long had trouble reckoning with or even acknowledging its history — whether it be racial or military, gender or economic. Pandemic history, even in the two years since those days in March 2020, is hardly an exception.
Do you remember those moments when people were talking about working together, when daily life was thrown off its axis enough that Americans were, for a time, a bit gentler with each other? When the word “COVID” was barely used yet, and everyone was just talking about the coronavirus?
“If we avoid each other and listen to the scientists, maybe in a few weeks it will be better,” Koloud “Kay” Tarapolsi of Redmond, Washington, told The Associated Press on March 11, 2020.Exactly two years later, this week, she said of those early days: “I just wish we would have taken it more seriously.”
And now: More than 6 million souls lost across the world. In the United States, nearly a million dead — and the polarization that was already poking at the fabric of American society redeployed into pandemic anger, setting masked neighbor against unmasked one, creating a fertile petri dish to grow as-yet undiscovered brands of mistrust and misconception.
The thing about history is this: Sometimes we talk about “now” as if it were the culmination of all that came before — the actual destination of everything. What we often fail to consider is that “now” is just another junction along the track, another waystation en route to the next thing and the next and the next.
That goes for the “now” of March 2020, yes. But it also applies to the “now” of March 2022 as well. Looking back on the uniquely strange and bedeviling year of 2020 is useful — you try to learn from what came before — but it also affords the chance to think about something else: Two years later, how will we look at right now? How will we take the measure of what we are doing two years after it all began? It this thing anywhere near done? And what happens when it is?
“Who are we after this? Who are we after dealing with this situation that we’ve never dealt with before?” Hilary Fussell Sisco, a professor at Quinnipiac University who studies how people communicate in troubled moments, said precisely two years ago Saturday. “You find out who you are when a crisis hits.”
Ted Anthony, director of new storytelling and newsroom innovation for The Associated Press, has written about American culture since 1990 and has overseen AP’s coverage of the pandemic’s impact on society. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/anthonyted
CDC director announces shake-up, citing COVID mistakes
NEW YORK (AP) — The head of the nation’s top public health agency on Wednesday announced a shake-up of the organization, saying it fell short responding to COVID-19 and needs to become more nimble
The planned changes at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — CDC leaders call it a “reset”— come amid criticism of the agency’s response to COVID-19, monkeypox and other public health threats. The changes include internal staffing moves and steps to speed up data releases.
The CDC’s director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, told the agency’s staff about the changes on Wednesday. It’s a CDC initiative, and was not directed by the White House or other administration officials, she said.
“I feel like it’s my my responsibility to lead this agency to a better place after a really challenging three years,” Walensky told The Associated Press.
The Atlanta-based agency, with a $12 billion budget and more than 11,000 employees, is charged with protecting Americans from disease outbreaks and other public health threats. It’s customary for each CDC director to do some reorganizing, but Walensky’s action comes amid a wider demand for change.
The agency has long been criticized as too ponderous, focusing on collection and analysis of data but not acting quickly against new health threats. Public unhappiness with the agency grew dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts said the CDC was slow to recognize how much virus was entering the U.S. from Europe, to recommend people wear masks, to say the virus can spread through the air, and to ramp up systematic testing for new variants.
“We saw during COVID that CDC’s structures, frankly, weren’t designed to take in information, digest it and disseminate it to the public at the speed necessary,” said Jason Schwartz, a health policy researcher at the Yale School of Public Health.
Walensky, who became director in January 2021, has long said the agency has to move faster and communicate better, but stumbles have continued during her tenure. In April, she called for an in-depth review of the agency, which resulted in the announced changes.
“It’s not lost on me that we fell short in many ways” responding to the coronavirus, Walensky said. “We had some pretty public mistakes, and so much of this effort was to hold up the mirror … to understand where and how we could do better.”
Her reorganization proposal must be approved by the Department of Health and Human Services secretary. CDC officials say they hope to have a full package of changes finalized, approved and underway by early next year.
Some changes still are being formulated, but steps announced Wednesday include:
—Increasing use of preprint scientific reports to get out actionable data, instead of waiting for research to go through peer review and publication by the CDC journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
—Restructuring the agency’s communications office and further revamping CDC websites to make the agency’s guidance for the public more clear and easier to find.
—Altering the length of time agency leaders are devoted to outbreak responses to a minimum of six months — an effort to address a turnover problem that at times caused knowledge gaps and affected the agency’s communications.
—Creation of a new executive council to help Walensky set strategy and priorities.
—Appointing Mary Wakefield as senior counselor to implement the changes. Wakefield headed the Health Resources and Services Administration during the Obama administration and also served as the No. 2 administrator at HHS. Wakefield, 68, started Monday.
—Altering the agency’s organization chart to undo some changes made during the Trump administration.
—Establishing an office of intergovernmental affairs to smooth partnerships with other agencies, as well as a higher-level office on health equity.
Walensky also said she intends to “get rid of some of the reporting layers that exist, and I’d like to work to break down some of the silos.” She did not say exactly what that may entail, but emphasized that the overall changes are less about redrawing the organization chart than rethinking how the CDC does business and motivates staff.
“This will not be simply moving boxes” on the organization chart, she said.
Schwartz said flaws in the federal response go beyond the CDC, because the White House and other agencies were heavily involved.
A CDC reorganization is a positive step but “I hope it’s not the end of the story,” Schwartz said. He would like to see “a broader accounting” of how the federal government handles health crises.
The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
Mike Stobbe, The Associated Press
Public hearings in Emergencies Act inquiry to start in September
OTTAWA — The inquiry into Ottawa’s unprecedented use of the Emergencies Act during protests in February will start its public hearings next month.
The Public Order Emergency Commission announced today that it expects the hearings to run from Sept. 19 until Oct. 28 at Library and Archives Canada in downtown Ottawa.
Commissioner Paul Rouleau said in a statement that he intends to hold the government to account and wants the inquiry to be as “open and transparent” as possible.
Hearings will be livestreamed online and members of the public will have opportunities to share their views, with a final report expected early next year.
Parties to the inquiry including “Freedom Convoy” organizers, police forces and all three levels of government are expected to testify and contribute documentary evidence on the invocation of the act in February.
The federal Liberals made the move amid border blockades and the occupation of downtown Ottawa by protesters demonstrating against COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 15, 2022.
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