We’re not in the clear yet, and there’s a lot of sacrifice, worry and suffering yet to come.

But the shipments of the first COVID-19 vaccines on Monday, less than a year after the identification of the novel coronavirus, was the first hopeful sign that the pandemic’s end is in fact in sight.

It was ingenuity, rigor and resolve that produced the first vaccines in record time, an achievement that ranks alongside the greatest science has produced, and which built upon decades of research into infectious disease.

But it is health care workers who have borne the brunt of pandemic. Placed in an impossible position by a deadly virus, an unprepared and ultimately detached federal government, and a largely ambivalent public, doctors, nurses and others on the front lines caring for people have remained committed to doing their best to limit the virus’ toll.

As a result, the virus has taken a heavy toll on the workers themselves, with health care professionals among the most likely to fall ill with COVID-19.

They’ve also dealt with the unthinkable stress of treating one desperately ill patient after another. They had to learn about a new virus on the fly, and apply what they learned for the first time in life-or-death situations. They had to comfort patients who could not see their families, and families who could not visit their dying loved ones.

The grief and exhaustion is inconceivable — and health care workers had to do it for hours on end, and then again the next day, for months at a time. Despite the unrelenting pressure, health care workers have largely done their jobs with professionalism and humanity.

And they’ve done their jobs while so many others seemed intent on making them more difficult.

First and foremost, despite the work of prior administrations, the Trump administration was not prepared for the virus from the start, and never seriously committed to helping health care workers, who dealt with an inexcusable lack of protective gear from the start, and well into the pandemic.

The president and Congress have failed also since March to bring any relief to individuals or businesses, as Senate Republicans continue to block a package of sufficient size.

There has been no national strategy, or any sense of national unity. Denying the severity of the virus and the need for restrictions on activity became part of the Republican platform, and as a result many Americans never took it seriously. Out of those who did, many are now tired of staying home, and are taking more risks.

That’s left us where we are now, with the virus as bad as it has ever been, even after nine months and 300,000 American deaths. A surge in cases caused by Thanksgiving get-togethers is just starting, with Christmas yet to come.

On Monday, a nurse in Long Island, N.Y., received what is thought to be the first shot of a COVID-19 vaccine in U.S. outside of a trial. On Tuesday morning, a nurse at Maine Medical Center in Portland became the first person in Maine to be inoculated. Many more health care workers will get shots in the coming days and weeks, providing hope that an end to their endlessly stressful shifts is near.

But the rest of us owe them more than the first vaccine shots.

We owe it to them to stay as safe as possible over the next few months, so that hospitals and their workers can handle the latest surge as best as they can. We owe it to them to take the vaccine when appropriate.

And we owe them thanks for taking COVID-19 so seriously, every day, when so many others haven’t.

 

 


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