As a new year begins, we want to look back on the first two years of the pandemic in the U.S. — and look ahead to what 2022 may bring. Today’s newsletter will do so with the help of a handful of charts.
Covid-19 is so named because it began spreading in China in late 2019. In the U.S., doctors first detected a case in Washington State in January 2020. Both cases and deaths then surged:
2021 began with a hopeful turning point: the ramping up of a mass vaccination campaign.
By February, new cases were plummeting, and by spring, the virus seemed as if it might be in permanent retreat, at least in highly vaccinated countries. On June 2, President Biden gave a speech looking ahead to “a summer of freedom, a summer of joy.”
Then came a second, much grimmer turning point: the emergence of the Delta variant, in late spring. It caused many more infections among the vaccinated than earlier variants, but the overwhelming majority of these breakthrough infections were mild.
As a result, communities with high vaccination rates were mostly protected from the worst outcomes:
Still, the emergence of Delta meant that 2021 often felt like a frustrating year of pandemic purgatory. In addition to the direct damage from Covid, the disruptions to daily life — intended to slow the spread of the virus — have brought their own costs.
Children have fallen behind in school, and many are experiencing mental health problems brought on by isolation. Americans’ blood pressure has risen, and drug overdoses have soared.
Even people who have avoided the worst of the pandemic’s damage often feel fed up. And now the latest variant, Omicron, has sent cases soaring to their highest level yet, and raised the prospect that 2022 will be another year of pandemic purgatory.
The emerging evidence suggests that Omicron really is milder than earlier versions of this coronavirus (either because of intrinsic biological reasons or because of higher levels of population immunity). In South Africa and England, as well as New York, San Francisco and other parts of the U.S., hospitalization numbers are lower than doctors had feared.
Omicron will still do terrible damage among the unvaccinated in both the U.S. and worldwide. Many hospitals face the risk of being overwhelmed in coming weeks.
Yet when the current surge begins receding, it will likely have left a couple of silver linings: Omicron is so contagious that it will have infected a meaningful share of the population, increasing the amount of Covid immunity and helping defang the virus. Omicron has also helped focus Americans on the importance of booster shots, further increasing immunity.
As important, the world has more powerful weapons to fight Covid than it did only a few weeks ago: two new post-infection treatments, one from Merck and a more powerful one from Pfizer, that lower the risk of hospitalization and death. With Pfizer’s treatment, the reduction is by almost 90 percent, according to early research trials.
All of which suggests that the U.S. could emerge from the Omicron wave significantly closer to the only plausible long-term future for Covid — one in which it becomes an endemic disease and a more normal part of daily life. It will still cause illness and death; a typical flu season kills more than 30,000 Americans, most of them elderly. For the foreseeable future, battling Covid — through vaccination, treatment and research — will remain important.
But endemic disease does not need to dominate life the way a pandemic does. It does not need to cause the sort of social isolation and public-health problems that Covid has over the past two years. If the U.S. reaches that point in 2022 — as appears likely — the next New Year will feel a lot more satisfying than this one.
More on the virus:
THE LATEST NEWS
The Biden administration’s child tax credit program, which helped keep millions of children out of poverty during the pandemic, ended.
Stacey Abrams has built a career straddling the line between the Democratic Party’s left and its center.
Other Big Stories
The Nooksack tribe in Washington State cut hundreds of people from its rolls, and many now face eviction.
Sudan’s prime minister, who was ousted in a military coup but reinstated over a month ago, resigned yesterday.
“I don’t think this is about the cheese.” In grocery stores, on airplanes and other places, customers are melting down.
From the weekend: These prenatal tests that warn of rare disorders are usually wrong, a Times investigation found.
For 2022, adopt New Year’s resolutions that will help your soul, Tish Harrison Warren writes.
What George Yancy learned about death from seven religious scholars, one atheist and his father.
A Times classic: The miracle of moving a grand piano in New York City.
Lives Lived: Sandra Jaffe and her husband stopped in New Orleans on their way home from their honeymoon and were transformed by the music. So they opened Preservation Hall, a club that has celebrated jazz for 60 years. Jaffe died at 83.
ARTS AND IDEAS
Making video game history
Hades is the first video game in history to win a Hugo Award, the prize for science fiction and fantasy that has historically honored books, graphic novels and other written works.
The Coronavirus Pandemic: Key Things to Know
The game, from the developer Supergiant Games, follows the story of Zagreus — son of the game’s eponymous god — as he tries to escape the Underworld. Along the way, he fights all sorts of hellish creatures and meets a wide array of characters, including the gods up on Olympus. He also uncovers family secrets and gains perspective on why his dad has made seemingly unsavory decisions.
The Hugo Awards’ inclusion of video games, which organizers are considering making permanent, speaks to how far the medium has come. In the early days of Pong in the 1970s or the original Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda in the 1980s, technology limited how much text a game could include. Today, a game’s storytelling can be its primary selling point, whether it’s a high-budget science-fiction epic like the Mass Effect trilogy or an indie game made by a small team like Celeste. — German Lopez, a Morning writer
PLAY, WATCH, EAT
What to Cook
These chicken wings come out of the oven as crisp as their fried counterparts.
What to Listen To
Times music critics highlighted some great songs — electronic, country, rap, soul and more — that went under the radar in 2021.
What to Read
Sixteen notable books coming out this month, including new works by Carl Bernstein and Hanya Yanagihara.