With the New Year’s Eve passing, 2021 is now the second year defined by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus pandemic and the global response to it. Compared to 2020, last year was not only deadlier, but also more complicated. Issues such as virus variants, vaccine resistance, and vaccine efficacy have come to the forefront. Mandatory vaccination went from a “conspiracy theory” to official policy in a matter of months. Increasingly prominent were also legal battles over government restrictions on the population, with approaches taken by different states further diverging.
Although 2021 started with a massive wave of COVID-19-related hospitalizations, there was also an expectation that the pandemic would soon end or at least fade into the background. Vaccination was billed as the ticket to normalcy, and initially it looked that way. By mid-June, about 180 million Americans had received at least one does of one of the approved vaccines and even states with the most authoritarian approaches, such as New York, had lifted most of their restrictions.
However, the respite was brief. In July, infections started to spike again. The CCP virus mutated into a new variant, dubbed Delta, which appeared to be less deadly, but more infectious. Vaccine uptake slowed down and Delta appeared to be somewhat more resistant to it. The solution presented by authorities was to take yet another shot of the vaccine—a “booster.”
The virus also showed signs of seasonality. In the winter, it pummeled the northeast, but not so much the south. In the summer, the situation seemed to reverse.
In August, President Joe Biden, plagued at the time by what was widely panned as a botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, announced a major policy shift—mandatory vaccination for government workers, contractors, and even private employers with over 100 employees. Just months earlier, the administration was dismissing the idea of vaccine mandates. Any suggestion that the government may force people to take the novel vaccine, still in the process of long-term clinical trials, was even ridiculed by some as a “conspiracy theory.”
Soon after Biden’s announcement, some Democrat-heavy states and localities followed with various mandates of their own, with New York City spearheading the effort. Bit by bit, New York had mandated the shot for government workers, private school staff, most indoor establishment workers, and even patrons of gyms, entertainment venues, and restaurants. To see a movie, exercise, or eat indoors, a New Yorker now must show a proof “full” vaccination, which for now does not include boosters, as well as photo ID. Outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio also added a mandate for all private employers and the state mandated the vaccine for all healthcare workers.
Legal challenges to the mandates have been a mixed bag of failures and partial victories. Oftentimes, courts would block the mandate only to later allow it to go into effect. Challenges to Biden’s mandate for private employers are expected to be heard by the Supreme Court.
Another phenomenon associated with Delta was an increase in severe illness and even deaths among children. While in 2020, about 0.05 percent of all COVID-19 deaths were children, the number rose to 0.1 percent in 2021, according to CDC, making for a total of 678 deaths associated with COVID-19. For comparison, the agency recorded 358 pediatric deaths during the 2009-2010 flu pandemic.
With the winter approaching, about 50 million Americans got booster shots. If that was to give them a sense of security, however, it would be short-lived. Out of South Africa emerged a yet new variant capable of wide spread, named Omicron. There are indications that vaccines and to a lesser extent natural immunity acquired through previous infection only provide limited resistance to Omicron. On the other hand, the variant appears to be yet more infectious, but again, less lethal than Delta, with reports of much milder symptoms and far fewer deaths worldwide.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that Omicron comprised about half of COVID-19 infections in the week ending Dec. 25. Those are modelled projections, though, as data from its variant surveillance system lags about three weeks.
Omicron or not, hospitalizations attributed to COVID-19 have surged in the northeast. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul responded by again requiring people to wear masks in indoor establishments, regardless of vaccination.
Republican-led states have generally gone in the opposite direction, not only refraining from mandates, but sometimes even outlawing them. Florida went as far as expressly prohibiting local governments and school districts from imposing mask and vaccine mandates on their staff or in their facilities. The state, led by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, also restricted private businesses from imposing vaccine requirements by carving out a number of exemptions, including for heath concerns and prior infection. Florida legislature even authorized the state to ditch federal Occupation and Safety Hazard Agency (OSHA) and create its own to preempt Biden’s vaccine mandate, which OSHA should enforce.
Last year has also been marked by a number of revelations regarding what appears to be a lack of candor on part of a number of experts and public officials.
A series of documents released under Freedom of Information requests showed that a group of experts, including NIH head Anthony Fauci, coordinated efforts to discredit the theory that the virus originally escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China. The evidence, in fact, appears to lean in that direction. But Fauci et al. have a personal stake in hiding those indices as they were involved in financing or conducting dangerous “gain-of-function” experiments with coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Fauci explicitly denied to Congress his NIH funded such research, only for a growing stack of evidence to indicate otherwise.
The information tug-of-war around potential therapeutics expanded last year. In addition to hydroxychloroquine, some doctors also tried off-label prescriptions of anti-parasitic drug ivermectin. In one episode, popular talk show host Joe Rogan was both praised and vilified for taking Ivermectin upon announcing he tested positive for the virus. He then invited CNN’s Sanja Gupta on his show and criticized his network for claiming he took a “horse de-wormer,” when in fact he took the human formulation of the drug as prescribed by his physician.
Study results on both hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin remain mixed. Some show improved results in patients under certain circumstances, while others do not.
Conversations regarding the vaccines’ safety also morphed. After initial claims of no serious side effects, authorities have gradually shifted toward acknowledgement that some serious side effects, such as myocarditis, do occur.
The Biden administration’s handling of the pandemic has been mixed. The administration managed a smooth rollout of the vaccines, but after the initial wave, the uptake has since slowed down. Gallup reported in November that the percentage of adults who are or plan to get vaccinated plateaued at 80 percent. By Dec. 30, over 205 million people were “fully” vaccinated, meaning 2 shots of the vaccines that require them. Over 68 million got boosters as well, leaving about 23 percent of the adult population.
A December poll by the Trafalgar Group found that a large majority of American likely voters opposed new mandates and restrictions, regardless of new variants (pdf).
After months of promises to tackle the pandemic, Biden recently conceded that there’s “no federal solution” to it. The year concluded with over 450,000 deaths attributed to COVID-19 and over 33 million detected infections. That’s up 27 percent and 67 percent respectively from the year before.