The dark winter is upon us. In fact, it’s that “darkest winter in modern history”—the one that the former Health and Human Services scientist Dr. Richard Bright warned us was coming in May when he testified before Congress. Bright continued, “Our window of opportunity is closing. If we fail to develop a national coordinated response, based in science, I fear the pandemic will get far worse and be prolonged, causing unprecedented illness and fatalities.”
It was a scary message, but one that most Republicans failed to respond to, from President Trump and his repeated claims that the virus was just going to “disappear” as he traveled the country holding super-spreader rallies, to Vice President Mike Pence, the ineffectual head of the White House coronavirus task force, to the obstructionist Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to clueless governors like South Dakota’s Kristi Noem, refusing to recommend that people wear masks even as record numbers of their constituents are dying. (Both the Sturgis motorcycle rally and Donald Trump’s mask-free July 4th gathering at Mt. Rushmore took place under Noem’s watch.) Republicans have been anti-shutdown, anti-masking, anti-social distancing. Why it’s almost as if the GOP is on the side of coronavirus.
And what did Bright get for his forceful and prescient warning? He got ousted from his post from the HHS, the price he paid for being a patriotic whistleblower.
Bright’s predictions did in fact come to pass. Scarily, America is averaging about 179,000 new coronavirus cases a day, the most since this summer. Hospital are overflowing with patients. Two states lead the country (and the world) in per-capita deaths: South Dakota and North Dakota. The HuffPost recently noted that “North Dakota had the highest COVID-19 mortality rate of any other state or even any other country in the world last week,” citing an analysis by the Federation of American Scientists. In North Dakota, some COVID-19-positive nurses have been asked to continue working and treating their coronavirus patients, because of a shortage of staff. North Dakota finally enacted Covid restrictions on November 13 —that’s 10 months into the pandemic for those keeping track at home.
In El Paso Texas 14 mobile morgues and a refrigerated warehouse now hold their dead. COVID-19 is ripping through Texas; more than a million Texans have been diagnosed with the virus and that’s up 35 percent over the last two weeks. Meanwhile, this week Texas Sen. Ted Cruz tweeted a picture of a turkey with the caption “come and get it.”
The idea is that not celebrating Thanksgiving with your elderly and vulnerable parents is somehow anti-American is just another entry in the endless culture wars. Republicans have decided that believing in the virus and following public health guidelines is some kind of conspiracy against them. Republicans are making a similar mistake to the one that Woodrow Wilson made during the 1918 flu pandemic. Wilson tried to cover up the pandemic, perhaps because he was in denial, perhaps because he worried the truth about the virus would hurt the economy. Republicans are clearly in denial about the pandemic. As late as October after the president was hospitalized for coronavirus, he again compared the virus to the flu. “Flu season is coming up! Many people every year, sometimes over 100,000, and despite the Vaccine, die from the Flu.” Reality check Mr. President: Coronavirus is many multiples more deadly than the flu.
But help is on the way, and not in the form of hydroxychloroquine (the “miracle” drug that Trump spent the summer touting but has no actual effects on the virus). Instead, science has found a way, the cavalry is actually coming in the form of two different MRNA vaccines, and likely there’s more in the pipeline—a very promising Johnson &Johnson vaccine, and one from AstraZeneca that, despite some questions about its trial protocols, are likely up next. Yes, the vaccines are here, and doctors may start getting vaccinated sometime in December.
And then there’s the incoming Biden administration, which has now rehired Dr. Bright to its coronavirus task force. Biden said of the task force and his entire coronavirus plan, “Dealing with the coronavirus pandemic is one of the most important battles our administration will face, and I will be informed by science and by experts.” (There are reports this week that Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has been constantly belittled and marginalized by President, has signaled his willingness to join the Biden coronavirus team.)
Biden also gave a Thanksgiving address, which focused on coronavirus. “The federal government has vast powers to combat the virus but individuals also bear responsibility,” the president-elect said, repeating his message that Americans must wear masks and practice social distancing until the vaccine is here. And he tried to douse the political flames fanned by Trump over the past year, saying, “We’re at war with a virus — not with each other.”
And some governors have gotten very clever in their messaging” Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz recently said, “Wear your mask and stay healthy if for no other reason that’ll keep you healthy to vote against me in two years.” (Is it any surprise that Walz is a Democrat?)
The next few months—certainly December and January —will be a dark and despairing time. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Our national nightmare could start to ebb sometime in Spring 2021, when the vaccine could be widely available. The summer could mark the return of travel and other normal activities. Dinner parties? Family vacations? Movies in theaters? Maybe Broadway will come back? Yes, help is on the way.
Unfortunately, that light is still a few months away and the Trump administration will be in power (at least theoretically) until January 20 and god knows how much more damage they can do in the final two months. (Yesterday, in his own Thanksgiving message, an angry Trump, still refusing to take any responsibility for the nearly 250,000 Americans who have died under his watch, told reporters not to let Joe Biden “take credit for the vaccines because the vaccines were me and I pushed people harder than they’ve ever been pushed before.” )
So, yes, the vaccine will come. But until then we must continue to be vigilant, to make hard choices, to find ways to keep ourselves and each other safe.