Two-year coronavirus anniversary marks strides, losses — and appreciating life | Local News

There is safety in numbers, unless you are dealing with a controversial topic like the coronavirus.

And then numbers can be used in numerous contrasting ways.

Two years into the pandemic, official statistics show New Mexico is approaching 7,000 coronavirus deaths, with the nation headed toward 1 million and a global total near 6 million.

As with so many elements of the pandemic, people disagree on whether those numbers are accurate. Some say they are embellished. Many others say they are undercounted.

But for all of the suspicion of vaccines, treatments and government proclamations about the disease, many physicians say in the two years since the pandemic began, science has performed admirably and accomplished remarkable work through the pandemic.

Science has done its job, they say, but communication strategies have failed, leaving a void that remains to this day.

“We had an extraordinary turnaround in terms of being able to produce multiple vaccines against COVID,” said Dr. Denise Gonzales, medical director of adult specialty services at Presbyterian Medical Group. “We have awesome tools, but if they’re not used, they can’t be effective. It is our responsibility to communicate effectively with patients and families.”

For some, the messaging will never matter.

“We have a lot of people who really don’t care for the government and anything they say,” said Dustin Middleton, emergency manager and fire marshal in Cibola County. “I can only help those who want the help. It’s kind of the way it goes.”

Middleton said his father, Frank, died of COVID-19 two days after Christmas in an Arizona hospital. Dustin Middleton is vaccinated. His father wasn’t.

“This last year has been really, really bad for me and my family,” Dustin said, though he adds he believes getting vaccinated is up to the individual.

“Everybody has their beliefs,” he said, “and that’s one of the freedoms they enjoy.”

The battle over COVID-19 numbers and their meaning has rumbled since mid-March 2020. That’s when the virus arrived, prompting federal, state and local officials to shut down or limit key aspects of American life. With those moves came controversy, and with controversy came disputes over what the numbers actually meant.

Two years later, little has changed: statistics are among the many disputed elements of the pandemic. Those at the front lines of fighting the disease — including many doctors and scientists — believe coronavirus mortality numbers are understated.

Some say numerous people who died of coronavirus at home didn’t get added to the COVID-19 death count.

Others point to a much more difficult number to track: deaths caused indirectly by the virus due to a variety of cascading elements.

In some cases, people were not treated because hospitals were full or because they couldn’t get into an emergency room; people were afraid to go to the ER because of the disease; and some didn’t obtain routine physicals, mammograms and other screening procedures. All those factors, some experts say, led to delayed diagnosis and care.

“I think those concerns are quite valid,” Gonzales said.

A Boston University report in January said some estimate the coronavirus death count is 20 percent higher than official numbers. The report also suggested politics have led some coroners to shun coronavirus as the cause of death. For example, a USA Today article quoted a county coroner in Missouri as saying his office “doesn’t do COVID deaths.”

Others say government and hospitals have exaggerated coronavirus case numbers and deaths.

Jesse James Gomez, an organizer with Concerned Citizens for New Mexico, said hospitals have been compensated by the federal government for the number of coronavirus patients they treat, creating an incentive to up the tally. He said drug companies also have had good reason to overstate the seriousness of the disease — “outrageous profits,” he said.

“You know the pharmaceutical companies are not our friends,” said Gomez, who lives in Chaves County.

Former President Donald Trump also alleged during the 2020 presidential campaign that hospitals and doctors exaggerated coronavirus cases and deaths for financial gain.

To the contrary, Troy Clark, CEO and president of the New Mexico Hospital Association, wrote New Mexico hospitals have lost $420 million since the start of the pandemic.

“We reject any assertion that they would misdiagnose or misreport any illness,” Clark wrote in an email. “… If hospitals were getting so rich from COVID, why have they lost so much money to it?” 

Dr. Brad Greenberg, medical director of emergency preparedness at San Juan Regional Medical Center in Farmington, where COVID-19 cases at times have swelled his facility to capacity, said controversy over coronavirus death statistics “has been around since the very beginning of the pandemic.” He said critics want to minimize the severity of the disease, though it remains a public health crisis.

“I think that it is counterproductive for people to try to introduce the idea that the impact of COVID-19 is somehow being overstated,” Greenberg said.

For some of those who have had the disease, the impact is not theoretical and has little to do with statistics. To them, it’s been about life and death.

Troy Tryon of Santa Fe and Emmet Fowler of Farmington said it would be tough to overstate the intensity of their bouts with the coronavirus.

Tryon, 58, said he spent a month in Presbyterian Santa Fe Medical Center and about three weeks regaining his strength in an Albuquerque physical rehab center after contracting COVID-19.

“They almost put me on a ventilator,” he said of the worst days of his battle with the disease. When he was ill in early 2021, the vaccines were just being unveiled.

He said he was given the antiviral medicine Remdesivir, steroids for his struggling lungs and a lung therapy to loosen fluid. They all helped, he said. His partner was hospitalized with the disease, too, but not as long as Tryon. His partner’s mother died of the disease early last year.

Fowler, 56, said he endured COVID-19 early in the pandemic, in March and April 2020. He fought a fever for 16 days, he said, before he landed in San Juan Regional Medical Center. He had a collapsed lung related to the virus. He said no to going on a ventilator, but he and his wife talked a bit about what a memorial service for him might look like.

“I spent the whole first week in the hospital pretty much crying,” he said. “The whole family was a wreck.”

Both he and Tryon said they did what exercises they could early on in their hospital stays — raising their toes, trying to lift their knees. Fowler concentrated on breathing and recalled the character Mr. Miyagi stressing the importance of breathing in The Karate Kid.

In Roosevelt County on the state’s east side, the vaccination rate remains below 50 percent and the death rate is comparatively high. Portales City Manager Sarah Austin said people there see getting the vaccination — or not getting it — as a freedom of choice issue. Many fear the vaccines won scientific and government approval too quickly, she said.

Portales offered $100 to residents who acquired two shots. Austin and her family are vaccinated.

“I have a staff of 140, and I would say about 60 percent of my staff is vaccinated,” she said, adding that was good in her county.

“But I really believe it is up to each individual,” she said.

The death rate is high in McKinley County in the northwest portion of the state, but the vaccination rate also is high.

“I can say that a lot of our deaths were earlier in the pandemic, prior to the vaccine,” said Adam Berry, emergency manager for the county.

Berry said medical institutions in his vicinity, including the Indian Health Service, Presbyterian Medical Services and Rehoboth McKinley Christian Health Care Services, have offered many vaccination events, and that has contributed to a high vaccination rate.

“It’s definitely been a big community effort,” he said.

Some doctors and researchers say public communication strategies and education in many ways couldn’t overcome politics and suspicion of government.

Science has “done itself proud,” said Catherine Troisi, a University of Texas School of Public Health faculty member in Houston. But the field of public health hasn’t done so well, said Troisi. “I am blaming the intrusion of politics into public health practice.”

“It’s also distrust in government,” said Troisi, adding she questioned whether science education has failed in this country. She referred to a conspiracy theory that claimed microchips were placed in the vaccines so people could be tracked.

“How would you even do that?” she asked.

Dr. Janko Nikolich-Zugich, head of the University of Arizona College of Medicine’s immunobiology department, said the country didn’t coordinate messages well enough among government, medical providers and media. “Most everybody has to be on a similar page, if not the same page,” he said.

He said “credible and trusted sources of information” need to carry the message. But vaccine hesitancy as well as vaccine hostility have been intense. “And I don’t know how successful you can be” against that.

Still, two years in, Dr. Theresa Ronan, medical director of quality at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, said scientists and the vaccines they produced have been victorious in the pandemic. But she noted the medical community evidently didn’t communicate early enough on the vaccines’ efficacy and safety.

By the time they did, some people’s views were cemented. “That’s probably been my greatest disappointment,” she said.

Emmet Fowler, among the first New Mexicans to fight and survive the disease, recalled when there wasn’t much to battle it with. It has been nearly two years and the memories remain.

“Man, I’ll tell you what; it gave me such a reference point,” he said. “If you don’t believe in God and you get COVID, you will believe in God.”






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