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Medical historian: The pandemic's not over, and COVID-19 is still a deadly disease

The three-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown is near, and Dr. Howard Markel is worried that its lessons are already being forgotten. Markel is a medical historian at the University of Michigan.

A nurse talks to a patient on a stretcher in the hallway of the Emergency Department at Sparrow Hospital.
Lester Graham/Michigan Radio
A nurse talks to a patient on a stretcher in the hallway of the Emergency Department at Sparrow Hospital.

Markel said it was to be expected that some of the tools used in the early days of the pandemic were misapplied, such as contact tracing. He said contact tracing was developed to track person-to-person transmission of STDs and tuberculosis — and it was not that helpful when trying to track a disease that can easily spread in a crowd via droplets in the air.

But for the most, part, he said shutdowns and other measures to control the spread of COVID-19 were necessary and effective.

"Social distancing probably saved 300 million or more lives," he said. "I know it's controversial, I know it was difficult. And I know this was the longest shutdown and the longest pandemic we've ever experienced. But you have to take drastic steps when something is out there stalking you."

Markel vehemently disagrees with recent moves by some universities, including Michigan State University, to drop COVID-19 vaccination mandates for staff and students. He said that's because COVID-19 is essentially a permanent pandemic, and the fast-mutating virus is still deadly, despite medical treatments that have been developed since the early days.

"What's the point of living in the 21st century, if you're resorting to 19th-century public health measures? We have the vaccine, it is very safe, and everybody in crowded environments like universities should be required to take them until we see this through."

Merkel said he is also worried that the lessons of the pandemic will be forgotten, including the need for swift, transparent, nation-to-nation communication, and the need to adequately fund health agencies for the same reason that fire departments and militaries are kept funded.

"We fund it, we protect it, we expand it, not because we think the threat is going to happen tomorrow, but just in case. And when it happens, we're there. And if we forget that lesson, woe betide to us."

Markel spoke with Stateside's April Baer on Friday.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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