It's the 2-year anniversary of the pandemic. How are we doing?
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:
With so much going on, you may have missed an unhappy anniversary. It was two years ago yesterday that the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. And a couple of days later, then-President Donald Trump said this.
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DONALD TRUMP: To unleash the full power of the federal government in this effort today, I am officially declaring a national emergency - two very big words.
FOLKENFLIK: Two very big words indeed. They quickly ushered in a dramatic change in this country - people staying home, schools closing, hospitals scrambling for equipment, many packed with patients. People were marked by worry, by fear, confusion over what to expect and what to do. Joining me now to mark these past two years - years of tragedy, innovation and resilience - is Dr. Aaron Carroll. He's chief health officer for Indiana University and the host of the "Healthcare Triage" podcast, where he unpacks medical research and public health. Good morning.
AARON CARROLL: Good morning.
FOLKENFLIK: Dr. Carroll, what do you remember of your frame of mind in mid-March of 2020?
CARROLL: It was only a couple of days before the WHO declared things a pandemic that I remember receiving an email from one of my editors at The New York Times, and she was asking me if I was interested in writing a column on how we were perhaps taking this too seriously. And I wrote back to her, and I said that, if anything, I felt we weren't taking this seriously enough. I think we'd only done maybe 2,000 tests in the entire United States at that point. I was worried that the hospitals were not prepared and that we as a country hadn't yet appreciated how bad this could get.
FOLKENFLIK: What did the U.S. do right during this early stage, do you think?
CARROLL: The speed with which we went into sheltering in place was pretty impressive. If you had told me how many Americans would actually comply with that and do it so quickly, I wouldn't have believed it ahead of time. I wish we'd held out longer, but we did take it very seriously at that time, and most people really did try to do the right thing.
FOLKENFLIK: I want to pause there for a second. You just said I wish we had done it longer. With the benefit of hindsight, is that the thing about which you have the most regrets?
CARROLL: I still don't think we've taken the necessary steps to prepare the public health infrastructure that's necessary to not only handle this pandemic but any one that might come across in the future. We've never created the rapid-testing infrastructure that would be necessary. We've never taken the steps to ensure that everyone can truly shelter and quarantine and isolate if they need to without economic repercussions. We've never set up schools so that they can operate really, truly safely even when surges might be operating. We just haven't done the things that we know we need to do in order to weather this as safely as possible without having to struggle and to fight.
FOLKENFLIK: So let's pause to ask about where we are now. Cases are down dramatically from the surge of omicron. What should our posture be? How should we think about where we find ourselves?
CARROLL: Well, I think it's perfectly reasonable and fair to acknowledge that this is about as quiet as it's been in some time. And given that, it's OK to relax some measures and do more than we used to. When it's rough, as it was two months ago, we should tighten. But when it gets better, we should loosen a bit - not too much, but we should be able to loosen and see how things go and loosen some more until we perhaps see another surge. I mean, we can keep hoping that we don't. And if we don't, then we can continue to relax things, but we still need to be wary.
FOLKENFLIK: What about you personally? How has your experience of the past two years affected the way you approach the work you do and the way you live life at home?
CARROLL: Well, it's changed my career quite a bit 'cause I was very much more focused on research. And the pandemic has led me, I think, into much more service where I'm realizing that there's a lot to be done in actually using information in the world as opposed to gathering it. But I do think it's also renewed in me the importance of local collective action, that we need a local sense of shared sacrifice and shared community.
I've said many times that, you know, seeing how Indiana University, the 115,000-ish constituents, really, you know, got together and did what it took to keep each other safe and to care for each other at times restored my faith in humanity. I also think I've, you know, realized that lots of things that I thought were important are not, and things that I perhaps didn't recognize important are. So it has been a shift in some of my priorities.
FOLKENFLIK: Like what?
CARROLL: I care much more about time off and vacations right now. (Laughter) I got to be honest. I'm much more focused on that I need to, you know, spend time with friends and family. I also lost both my parents during the pandemic as well as...
FOLKENFLIK: I'm so sorry.
CARROLL: ...My really good friend from cancer. I appreciate that. You know, and it sort of reminded me that time is short and that things in the now matter and that I have to take care of myself and those around me and do the best I can to be a good citizen as well.
FOLKENFLIK: That's Dr. Aaron Carroll with the Indiana University School of Medicine. Dr. Carroll, thanks so much for talking with us this morning.
CARROLL: Thank you.
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