02 empty placeWith mere weeks left in this God-awful year of 2020, there is some positive news to digest.

While there is still much we do not understand, we have learned a lot about COVID-19. We know it is spread largely through respiratory contact, and that some infected people spread the virus but show no symptoms and are not ill themselves. This knowledge focuses our behaviors and activities.

In addition, not one but two, pharmaceutical companies report better than 90-percent efficacy of their newly developed COVID-19 vaccines. Dr. Anthony Fauci and other infectious disease experts are heartened, as the rest of us should be.

We have a long way to go until either one or both become publicly available, probably first to health care providers, then to high-risk populations, and finally to the general public. When my turn comes, I will be in line for sure, both to protect myself and also those whom I love and who love me. Experts say we are looking at spring or summer of 2021, at best.

Between now and then, the holidays loom. These are occasions when we traditionally gather with family and friends for both festivities and religious observances. The holidays form our most cherished moments and our collective memories. At a time when we want and need to be together, many of us will not and should not do so.

The United States and much of the rest of the world are staring down a third, and perhaps the deadliest, pandemic surge so far. Unlike earlier surges clustered in metro areas like Seattle and New York City, the virus is now everywhere in our nation, rampaging through previously unscathed rural areas across our nation and occupying more hospital beds than ever before. Communities where residents felt safe no longer are. While certain populations, including seniors, remain at higher risk, the virus has become an equal opportunity invader, striking younger people, including some children. Sadly, the United States passed a quarter of a million COVID-19 deaths last week.

Looking back over this dreadful year of COVID, two complicating factors jump to the forefront. Most nations have some national public health system, but the United States leaves public health to individual states. That means that each state has reacted differently and without coordination, and most state systems are woefully underfunded. The lack of a national public health structure has allowed the virus to spread freely among states under lockdowns, like New York was, and states with few restrictions, like those in the Midwest where the virus now rages.

In addition, millions of Americans have been afflicted with magical thinking, some of them in the highest decision-making positions. Despite the human and economic carnage wrought by COVID, deluded Americans assert the virus is a “fraud,” that divine intervention protects them, that face coverings are a political choice not a public health necessity, or some other inexplicable and unsupportable fantasy. Such thinking and behavior has given the virus free range to spread rapidly and widely. The United States leads the world in infections and deaths when we should be leading the world in the other direction.

Our 2020 holidays will be like no others. As we “gather” in small groups or electronically, it will be with empty seats at our tables — some of them permanently, and the knowledge that it did not have to be this way. All we can do now is take care of each other as best we can as we pass through this dark winter and await the vaccines.

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