I recently found a Christmas card my grandparents received. Handwritten under the verse was a wish for them to have a happy and healthy new year. Healthy was underlined twice!
That is not the usual wish we write when we send a greeting to friends and family wishing them a Happy New Year. So why the emphasis on health?
My grandparents were born at the turn of the century. They saw firsthand the 1918 influenza pandemic which spread worldwide at the close of World War I. Here in the United States, it was first identified in military personnel during the spring of 1918. In the USA it killed approximately 675,000. It is estimated that about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide.
Mortality was high in people younger than 5 years old, healthy 20-40 years old, and those 65 and older. Control efforts were limited to non-pharmaceutical interventions such as isolation, quarantine, masking, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limiting public gatherings. This explains why my grandmother left Tivoli (near Hughesville) and enrolled in Williamsport Hospital’s School of Nursing.
Health care was just beginning in those days. There was no health insurance and people relied on charity. Life was difficult and often fleeting. Things were just looking up for many when the depression hit in 1929, followed closely by World War II. Penicillin was just being developed and by the 1940s would become the miracle drug, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, or at least to kill bacteria and fight many infectious diseases.
Medication changed lives. Polio was yet another infectious disease devastating many. It causes muscle weakness that leads to bone deformity, paralysis and sometimes death. No one has found a cure or specific treatment, but the multi-dose vaccines that were developed have made contracting polio rare. The first inoculations were given to children in Pittsburgh in February, 1954. I remember standing in long lines with my parents and grandparents to receive the oral doses, on sugar cubes, in the early 60s.
Now the blessing “have a happy and healthy New Year” is beginning to make sense!
Influenza is still here, coming in slightly different strains over the past 100 years, and we are offered a vaccine (flu shot) annually. I’ve been taking it since I was the caregiver for my grandfather. If I get the flu, it should not be as severe, and I won’t compromise those I am working with by spreading the flu to them.
I also get the pneumonia shot when my doctor recommends it for the same reasons.
COVID-19 is one of our latest health threats. We are much luckier than our ancestors a century ago. Scientists have developed drugs and techniques to significantly limit the threats which still hospitalize and sometimes claim the lives of way too many!
The COVID vaccine greatly reduces your chances of needing hospitalization, should you become infected. The vaccines continue to be developed and now are available for children as young as six months. Infants whose mothers received their vaccine during pregnancy are less likely to be admitted to the hospital for COVID-19 during their first six months of life.
When someone is fully vaccinated with an updated booster, they are 3.1 times less likely to become COVID positive, 4.5 times less likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19, and 18.6 times less likely to die.
The boosters continue to upgrade your protection as COVID strains develop and mutate. The newest booster is the only one you need. It targets the original virus as well as the current Omicron subvariants, which accounts for 90% of new cases.
Masking, especially in crowds, is another way to avoid contracting or spreading COVID. The best masks are the N95s. Surgical masks are also acceptable. Both must be worn properly to be effective (covering both your nose and mouth without gaps.)
Symptoms of COVID are generally mild for those vaccinated, similar to a bad cold (runny nose, sneezing, headache and sore throat.) The only way to know what you have is to test. River Valley Health and Dental is one of several places providing free PCR testing with on-site treatment available. They also have the free at-home test kits (which you can also order online at https://www.covid.gov/tests/ or by calling 1-800-232-0233.)
We also have access to new medications for high-risk patients who test positive, These antiviral medicines (usually Paxlovid) are prescribed by your physician.
What a gift to be able to not only wish someone a healthy new year, but to help to keep them healthy!
Rev. Gwen Bernstine is a local pastor now serving Lycoming Presbyterian Church, and is a member of Let’s end COVID!