The United States crossed the threshold of one million deaths from Covid-19 on Thursday, the White House announced, but, like New York brought to its knees in 2020, the country wants to turn the page on the pandemic. “We must remain vigilant in the face of this pandemic and do everything we can to save as many lives as possible, as we have done with more tests, vaccines and treatments than ever before,” the US president said. Joe Biden in a statement.
After several months of decline in the coronavirus pandemic in the officially most bereaved country in the world (ahead of Brazil, India and Russia), the United States has been recording a daily increase in the number of cases for the past month. The country that lifted the mask requirement, now only advised indoors, is seeing a rebound in the number of cases due to Omicron subvariants. However, its effects seem less serious on a population that is 66% completely vaccinated, and more than 90% for those over 65, while a fourth dose of vaccine is currently only open to those over 50. years
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A “long nightmare” for doctors
Exhaustion, persistent fear of the crowd… American health professionals today continue to pay the price of an epidemic that has taken up all their strength, both physical and mental. At the head of the intensive care unit in a small hospital in an underprivileged district of Houston, Texas, Joseph Varon, 59, remembers the first death: a hotel employee, who died in barely a week. “It’s my job, but I was shocked that an otherwise healthy 34-year-old man died like this before our eyes. »
No hospital in the United States was equipped to deal with the crisis
“I have signed more death certificates in the past two years than in my entire career as a doctor. You have to be crazy to be a doctor in the middle of a pandemic”. For the doctor, the pandemic has been “one long, uninterrupted nightmare, with phases in the middle that were even worse. »
He remembers nurses crying in the face of the continuous flow of patients, beds in the hallways, chain intubations… “No hospital in the United States was equipped to deal with the crisis”, judges the doctor, who arrived Mexico 35 years ago, attracted by a more efficient healthcare system. “A million deaths, how is that possible? We are in the United States, not in a third world country where there is nothing! But it happened, ”he laments, blaming the politicization of the debate, for example around masks.
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At the very beginning, the disease remained mysterious and threatening, and the fear of infecting one’s family or becoming seriously ill oneself was great. He remembers his wife making him take his clothes off in the garage on his way home, before a mandatory shower.
“The idea of dying because of what you are doing, of leaving your orphaned children behind, is terrifying,” Daniel Brenner, an emergency doctor like his wife, told AFP. At the start of the pandemic, he was stationed in a large hospital in Baltimore, on the American east coast. He believes that he now has some post-traumatic symptoms. “I get very anxious when I’m in crowds where people aren’t wearing masks,” says the 30-year-old. Sobs in his voice, he assures us that he is doing his best not to “inflict his traumas” on his three young children. “But it’s very hard. »
In December 2020, a photo of Joseph Varon made headlines: he was seen embracing, on Thanksgiving Day, an elderly patient who had contracted the coronavirus. The man desperately wanted to be with his wife, but visits were prohibited. “I felt so sad,” says the doctor. At the time, “people would die alone in intensive care, with no family around them. According to him, this image which has gone around the world has “become a symbol, showing that doctors also have feelings”. He says he remembers each of his deceased patients.
Another 330 daily deaths in the United States
In addition to these memories, the frantic pace of work affected him deeply. “I aged very quickly. I feel exhausted,” he says, while hammering that he will not take a real vacation until “the pandemic is completely over”. He no longer counts the number of working days in a row. At his daughter’s wedding, he continued to do prescriptions over the phone. “These are things I will remember all my life. I hope that will not be the case with my family. But even if I was there physically, I was not there”.
Today, the situation has improved. Although the United States is again recording an increase in Covid-19 cases, health workers have learned to better treat this disease, and treatments are available. Above all, vaccines marked a turning point.
“It was amazing, because you don’t realize the pressure on you until a game is lifted,” recalls Daniel Brenner. He now asks all his patients if they are vaccinated or not, and if not, tries to convince them. Because despite the progress made, around 330 people still die of Covid-19 every day in the United States. For him, these deaths cause “a mixture of sadness and frustration, because they are preventable. »
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New York excitement
After more than two years of pandemic and several waves of variants, the United States however intends to turn the page on Covid-19. Thus New York, an economic and cultural magnet, seems to have regained its legendary effervescence. New Yorkers, American and foreign tourists return to the theaters of Broadway, photograph themselves under the giant digital advertising signs of Times Square, climb the Statue of Liberty, ride in carriages in Central Park, on foot and by bike on the bridge from Brooklyn, rush to the most beautiful museums in northern Manhattan…
So many attractions that have been gradually reopening since 2021 and have made the world reputation of the megalopolis of 8.4 million souls. Midday and evening, the traffic is again hellish in the center of Manhattan, its financial and commercial lung. The queues are getting longer in front of the tens of thousands of restaurants, stalls, take-out trucks for white-collar and blue-collar workers. The trendiest terraces in Manhattan and Brooklyn are once again crowded. “We’ve been waiting for this return from New York for a long time,” breathes Alfred Cerullo, who heads the Grand Central Partnership, a pro-business lobby in Manhattan. “Without a doubt, he told AFP, you can feel the energy of people in the street”.
The contrast is striking with the nightmarish spring of 2020. Epicenter of the pandemic, the “city that never sleeps” had been emptied for weeks, deserted like in a science fiction film. The huge arteries of Manhattan and Brooklyn were animated only by the anxiety-provoking sirens of the emergency services, with overwhelmed hospitals and morgues forced to store the bodies of covid victims in refrigerated trucks.
40,000 dead in New York
Janice Maloof-Tomaso, a nurse who worked near Boston at the time, recalls that many caregivers could not bear to “see death”. “Some were traumatized, and many left.” About 40,000 New Yorkers have lost their lives to covid since the spring of 2020 and both the island of Manhattan and the gigantic neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens bear the scars of the pandemic. Lacking customers for months, thousands of small businesses have gone out of business, their windows still covered with wooden boards or posters of real estate agents.
Among these small store owners, Frank Tedesco runs a jewelry store in the very upscale Westchester County, north of the Bronx. He confides to AFP that he saved his shop in 2020 thanks to public aid and his own heritage, but he feels “obviously worried” because he does not “(know) what will happen” and how he could bear another economic “shock” caused by a return of the epidemic.
New Yorkers remain on their guard. The mask is still very common on the street and indoors – and compulsory in transport. And telecommuting has become commonplace: according to the weekly barometer of the security company Kastle, the office occupancy rate in New York still peaks at 38%. The boss of the investment bank Goldman Sachs, David Solomon, acknowledged on May 2 that the rate of employees returning to the office barely reached 50 to 60% of the workforce, against 80% present before the covid.