This year has been the blackest of nights for so many of our friends and neighbors. Daily, I still see the ravages of depression, made worse by the pandemic. It will be some time until we understand the repercussions of postponed cancer screenings. Even simple blood tests have become a perilous journey to the outside world for many. Despite hospitals and other health care facilities taking every precaution to keep their patients safe, I am having a difficult time convincing some patients to go for necessary testing and procedures. Preventive medicine is being seen as optional. In just the first half of 2020, breast and colon cancer screenings dropped by over 80 percent. Will that mean finding cancers at a more advanced stage over the next few years? Time will tell.
The mental health of our nation is tanking. We are now seeing the hard data confirming our prior fears about drug overdoses. The CDC has recently reported a large increase in drug overdose deaths from March to May of 2020 (the latest available data), coinciding with pandemic-related restrictions. Whether you recognize it or not, you most likely know someone affected by this. In pre-pandemic days we were already facing a tremendous mental health crisis. As grateful as I am for the technology that allows so many people to stay connected to health care professionals and mental health counselors, not everyone can access this technology. Even those who have the financial means to connect may not have a strong enough social support to reach out and find help. I still worry about those who do have proper access but who do not have ongoing family support. The telemedicine visit with me is just a few minutes of talking with a human and seeing someone’s face. Once the visit is over, it is back to being alone in the house.
Deaths are mounting, and now we are facing a new strain of SARS-CoV2. One respected model, IHME, predicts over 500,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the United States by May 2021. And what of the brand new lockdown of the United Kingdom due to a recently discovered mutation? Viruses mutate; it’s what they do. This is not at all unexpected. It is why we have a seasonal flu vaccine, rather than one vaccine to last for years on end. It is thought that there have already been over 4000 small mutations to the SARS-CoV2 virus since originally sequenced. The question yet to be answered is how this new strain will be clinically meaningful. We do not yet know if it is truly more easily spread than the original strain or if it is more likely to cause serious illness or death or require different treatment approaches. What we do know is that we need to stay vigilant and keep learning, keep adapting.
And yet, as the pandemic rages on, it feels like we finally have a light at the end of this very long tunnel that is 2020. Thankfully, we have two vaccines approved for emergency use as of this writing. Within just the last week, the very first SARS-CoV2 vaccine was given in the United States, quickly following the first doses in the United Kingdom. As of December 21, over 500,000 vaccine doses have been administered, according to the New York Times. This news certainly feels like a candle lit in the darkest of times. It reminds me of the Christmas Eve candlelight service, which sadly will not happen this year. The light starts with a single candle and then spreads beautifully as congregants pass the light to their neighbors. It ends with a full glow, candles raised, and a hope unlike any other.
Christmas lights, Hanukkah menorahs, Diwali Diyas, meditation candles – lights have had spiritual meaning for time immemorial. Much news was made of the rare sighting of the “Bethlehem star” that appeared last night, as Jupiter and Saturn converged. How fitting that a convergence not seen at night in 800 years would happen in 2020. We need symbols of hope. Even from a purely secular point of view, you must admit that it was a unique moment.
How much more can we appreciate light after a journey of darkness? Simply watching a movie on the big screen, taking a road trip, going to a concert, racing with 30,000 of my closest friends – pleasures that feel like distant memories will return. We’ve made it this far. If we can just be patient a little while longer, it will happen safely. Continue to check on your neighbors. Smile at the cashier, though still behind your mask. Donate to your favorite charity. People are hurting. If you don’t see the light, become the light yourself. You can brighten someone’s day. Then pass your candle to the next person.
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