Editorial: The long haul 

Cotton is the traditional second-anniversary gift, porcelain a more modern alternative. Two years after Maine’s first date with COVID-19, smashing a gravy boat seems as good a way as any to mark the occasion. Or maybe the Scouts offer an endurance badge?  

The World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 11, 2020. Four days later, Governor Janet Mills announced a civil state of emergency in Maine. Schools were closed, non-urgent medical procedures postponed, assisted living facilities locked down and Mainers who could kept close to home. Since then, there have been 2,142 deaths in the state and 4,434 hospitalizations. Seventy-eight Hancock County residents have died. The nation is nearing 1 million COVID-19 deaths. The global death toll? More than 6 million. 

Then there’s the collateral damage. While suicide rates declined nationally in 2020, mental health needs have escalated. Overdose deaths hit an unwelcome record. More than 100,000 Americans died by overdose in the 12-month period ending in April 2021 – an increase of 28.5 percent. More than 500 Mainers died of overdoses in 2020, representing a 33 percent increase over the previous year. Some people delayed medical care during the pandemic, exacerbating non-COVID-related issues. So-called long COVID symptoms have diminished quality of life for many. Then there’s the chronic stress, social disconnection and recurrent disappointment everyone has had to endure. Kids especially have missed out on milestones and critical learning time.  

But there is cause for optimism at the two-year mark. Most Maine counties, including Hancock, dropped into the low-risk COVID-19 community level last week. There were 128 hospitalizations in the state reported on March 10, down more than 70 percent from a high of 436 on Jan. 13. The state has ended its recommendation for universal masking in schools. Some students saw their teachers’ smiles for the first time this month and vice versa. There’s more discussion about when the disease might become endemic. That is, here to stay but circulating at steady rates rather than in large outbreaks. This is a long-term relationship and one that could be blown apart by a new variant. As Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah phrased it, “COVID is down, but not out.” 

Still, on the cusp of spring and riding a wave of promising news on the health front, we are hopeful. Most heartening of all is observing the care people are taking with others. You can see it in a meeting where participants show up bare faced but carrying masks in case that would make others feel more comfortable. You can see it in the strange dance many of us still do to give each other personal space. And you can see it in the increasing number of visible smiles – like crocuses tentatively poking out of the earth when a late blizzard yet may arrive. That is worth celebrating even if this strange, sad anniversary is not.  

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