2021 felt like even more of a rollercoaster ride than 2020. In the public health world, one thing was constant: upheaval. We endured some enormous losses, but made some major gains and are closing out the year with so much left to do.
In the final issue of Expert Insights for 2021, we took stock of what we covered in another year marked by a pandemic, racial reckoning, political upheaval, and climate disasters as well as major health care breakthroughs, innovation, and true moments of humanity and even humor.
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Some major moments this year:
- 2021 kicked off with horrifying violence in the U.S. Capitol; Bloomberg School Dean Ellen J. MacKenzie marked the moment as one of sadness, along with purpose and hope for the nation’s healing.
- President Biden’s transition marked a new era of COVID-19 response for the U.S.—one that centered on vaccinations, greater access to testing, and restoring trust in scientific institutions like the NIH, CDC, and FDA.
- In May, the FDA OK’d the Pfizer vaccine for kids ages 12-15, sparking broader conversations about global vaccine equity, especially on the heels of the catastrophic COVID crisis in India.
- One year after his murder, we remembered and honored George Floyd. The conviction of Derek Chauvin was “an important and public step for accountability and justice.”
- In June, we recognized the 40th anniversary of the first CDC report “mark[ing] the dawn of the recognition of AIDS.”
- This summer, delta interrupted pandemic gains as “the most transmissible [variant] yet.” Some areas of the U.S. with lagging vaccination rates once again saw surging case rates and overwhelmed hospital systems.
- The world watched a belated pandemic Olympics in July.
- In October, the CDC greenlit COVID boosters. That same month, the FDA authorized COVID vaccines for kids 5-12.
- Public health officials continued to speak out against violence and harassment, calling on policymakers and the American public to address these issues before the next health crisis hits.
- We reckoned with new truths in our institution’s history.
- A string of massive climate crises made headlines.
- A cache of more than 3,000 documents including emails, memos, and sales reports, was uploaded to the newly formed Opioid Industry Documents Archive.
- Experts continued to worry about vaccine inequity in developing countries and reminded us that until we get the world vaccinated, new variants will continue to emerge. One way to ensure vaccine access to all countries? Share the recipes to make them.
- The gun violence epidemic continues despite a multitude of proven prevention strategies.
Some big COVID knowledge gains to acknowledge this year:
- Immunosuppression is not a major risk factor for severe COVID.
- The world needs better surveillance for variants, and South Africa stepped up when omicron came on the scene.
- New data on long COVID: It can result from mild cases and impact people of all ages.
- Oral antivirals could help change the trajectory of the pandemic.
- A huge red flag: The world is not prepared for the next health crisis.
- There’s still hope for convalescent plasma as an early treatment option.
We celebrated EI’s one-year anniversary in March with the requisite group photo/Zoom screen shot. We put a lot of hard work—and some wild ideas—into public health messaging. We explored pandemic life in terms of dating, returning to in-person learning, travel, and holidays. We rethought the concept of herd immunity in the context of sluggish global vaccine rollouts and emerging variants of concern like omicron—which is more transmissible than delta, and wrecking the curve’s downward trajectory with an unforeseen spike in new infections.
In 2022, all of us will continue to adapt to COVID in new ways, but the nation will ideally focus its response toward strategies to protect high-risk individuals from severe disease and death.
Lindsay Smith Rogers, MA, is the producer of the Public Health On Call podcast and the associate director of content strategy for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.