Though 2020 has come to a close, the virus that defined it is surging into the new year undefeated and unabated.
Over the course of the pandemic, the United States has recorded nearly 20 million cases of COVID-19 and more than 345,000 deaths — a staggering toll of lives lost and forever changed that seemed unimaginable when the country’s first known outbreaks of the novel coronavirus emerged nearly 10 months ago.
In Massachusetts, as the year wound down, the death toll stood at 12,157, one of the highest per capita death tolls in the nation. The state on Thursday reported 359,445 cases for 2020, following a resurgence of the virus in the fall that pushed daily case counts into the thousands and strained hospitals anew.
The coming of the new year carries at least one sign of progress: Vaccines have arrived. As of Thursday, Massachusetts has administered 78,643 potentially life-saving doses.
“We’re going to end the year with a little ray of hope about the vaccine,” said Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera in a New Year’s Eve interview. “But you’re also watching more and more of our fellow Lawrencians die.”
Officials like Rivera and advocates who have led their communities through the long months said that while they welcome the new year, they are painfully aware that the virus is not going away anytime soon. They know the vaccine rollout marks the first step in a months-long march toward herd immunity — a journey already beset by roadblocks including nationwide distribution delays and inadequate infrastructure.
The year has not burdened all communities equally. The virus has taken a disproportionate toll on elders and their caregivers, front line workers in industries ranging from health care to retail, and Black, indigenous, and Latino communities. Many of Massachusetts’ hardest-hit cities and towns, Lawrence among them, are also its most diverse.
The city of around 80,000 has seen more than 13,300 positive cases, and Rivera said Thursday that the city’s latest death toll stood at 187. Still, he holds out hope for the future.
“I’m an optimist,” Rivera said. “To be a mayor, you have to kind of come from that in your heart. . . . Help could always come faster, but that help is coming is solace enough.”
For Lawrence and much of Massachusetts, it is a New Year filled with cautious hope and continued struggle. New data showed that 190 of the state’s 351 communities, including Boston, are considered high-risk for the virus.
Watching the pandemic play out from his position as Boston’s chief of health and human services, Marty Martinez has been struck by the ways in which the pandemic exacerbated a number of longstanding inequities. The goal, he said, is to emerge from the crisis — whenever that might be — “in a more equitable way than we entered it.”
“To me, that’s the hopeful part,” Martinez said. “You have to make sure that you continue that focus, even when COVID goes away, even when no one’s talking about COVID tests and masks. That can’t go away. It has to be a priority.”
In Brockton, when Robert F. Sullivan took his mayoral oath last Jan. 6, it would have been hard to imagine the maelstrom that awaited him.
By February, Sullivan was conducting twice-weekly calls with local hospitals about the virus. And by April, the city’s infection rate had come to rank among the highest in the state. As of Thursday, the city had seen more than 8,600 total cases and 343 COVID-related deaths.
Despite the toll, Sullivan said he has been heartened by the way those in the city have persevered, and he expressed optimism that 2021 would bring better days.
“We’re not there yet,” he said. “But I’m really proud of the community that I serve, and I’m really hoping for some really wonderful rebounds and turnarounds in 2021. We need it.”
When the virus and attendant recession devastated her city, Gladys Vega, executive director of La Colaborativa formerly known as the Chelsea Collaborative, quickly revamped her organization’s programming to meet her neighbors’ pressing needs. She said that despite the pandemic’s destruction, she finds hope for the new year in the collective spirit she saw transform her community.
“I saw that humanity of other people in this Commonwealth didn’t have borders,” Vega said. “It was not about immigration status, it was just about human beings caring for strangers, for others, and lending a helping hand. It feels so good to experience that.”
Significant advances in COVID-19 medicine and research provide additional reasons for optimism. Multiple high-efficacy vaccines are being distributed and developed. Testing technology has advanced, as well, making widespread and low-cost options a real possibility. We understand far better than in the spring how COVID-19 spreads, what interventions can slow transmission, and which populations are most at risk.
Thanks to these developments, “we will end 2021 in a vastly better place than we started it,” said William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
But people cannot rely on “magical thinking” to make this year better than its predecessor, Hanage warned. Vaccines and more testing are arriving at the same moment that a new, more contagious strain of the virus is circulating, and the United States remains in the middle of a staggering wave of infection.
Correcting last year’s missteps will require significant federal and state investment, as well as continued caution and social distancing, Hanage said. It will also require us all to learn one simple lesson from 2020, he said: “Take [COVID-19] seriously.”
Hanage said that the new year will not bring a “new normal,” but with a renewed commitment to public health, it can bring brighter days.
“You won’t get back to normal because you’re always going to have the memory of what this was like, and what it took, and who it took,” he said. “But once you adjust to that, then you start recognizing and valuing all the things that make it better. . . . You start to value what you do have.”