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A 2021 timeline from Alpha to Omicron

Despite plentiful vaccines to fight the virus, covid-19 has dominated 2021 and refuses to go away with a new variant gaining ground to become dominant.

Despite plentiful vaccines to fight the virus, covid-19 has dominated 2021 and refuses to go away with a new variant gaining ground to become dominant.
Ethan MillerAFP

Covid-19 has dominated lives, the economy and the national discourse for a second year. This year began with a new variant that would later be named Alpha was the concern raising case numbers as the US struggled to get its vaccine rollout going.

As the year 2021 comes to a close, a new variant Omicron, which is even more transmissible than all the variant before, along with the Delta variant are once again causing infections to surge. This time round the US is going into the winter with a majority of the population vaccinated but far from the levels that had been hoped for and Omicron appears to be more capable of evading the vaccine wall. Here’s a look back at covid-19 over the course of 2021.

Vaccines in 2021 brought hope for an end to the pandemic in the US

The first covid-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use by the FDA at the end of 2020. Despite large stockpiles that were built up in advance of their greenlighting for use, initial distribution was slow in getting off the ground. The administration of former President Trump has been much criticized for its handling of the pandemic, from not taking the spread of the virus seriously and lacking transparency to peddling false cures for the disease.

The day after assuming the presidency, President Biden signed a string of executive orders and presidential directives in a “full-scale wartime effort” to combat covid-19. He invoked the Defense Production Act to increase vaccine and protective medical equipment, something his predecessor had been hesitant to do. The White House aggressively acquired ever more doses of vaccine to where there would be enough to inoculate every adult by July.

Vaccination numbers climb only to stall

Before taking office, Biden had pledged to get 100 million shots in arms in his first 100 days in office, later upping the ante to 200 million. The US crossed the goal line with a week to spare. Initially the vaccination campaign saw ever greater numbers of Americans getting their jabs.

However, the average number of daily shots peaked in April and began to fall due to complacency and hesitancy among the public. In an effort to regain momentum in the vaccination program, the Biden administration announced a 'National Month of Action' to get at least one-shot in the arms of at least 70 percent of the population by the 4th of July. The president called for Americans to take five actions to meet the goal including incentives for getting vaccinated.

States try to increase vaccination with incentive schemes

The lagging vaccine rates were not just a worry for the White House but also state governments across the US. Incentive schemes began to be set up in states to increase the number of jabs going into arms but some thought there needed to be something that would make heads turn.

Ohio became the first state to announce a vaccine lottery that would give out a $1 million prize to five adults who had gotten at least on shot of a covid-19 vaccine. Teenagers could also participate, but they would receive a four-year ride at a state university. Over a dozen other states were quick to follow with their own lottery, with California out doing all of them.

Vaccine mandates put into place

Despite concerted efforts and more than enough doses available, vaccines became yet another political flash point in the partisan clashes. Also, vaccine hesitation was driven in part by rare cases of adverse side effects, one from the Johnson and Johnson vaccine caused health officials to pause its use temporarily.

Rampant anti-vaxxing misinformation kept many away from getting protected against the virus and drew the condemnation of Facebook by President Biden for allowing it to spread. The FDA came out to warn the public about one in particular, ivermectin, which people were hospitalized after overdosing when they used the deworming drug intended for livestock or other formulations not approved for use in humans.

To counter reluctance and resistance driving low vaccination rates, states and localities began putting into place vaccine mandates. The White House put into place its own mandates for government employees, healthcare workers and military personnel. However, Biden held back on a federal mandate for non-government workers until the Pfizer vaccine received full approval from the FDA.

In September large employers with 100 or more workers had to get their staff to vaccinate or submit them to weekly covid-19 testing. The move has been challenged in court and will be decided by the US Supreme Court in the new year.

New strains keep the pandemic going throughout 2021

At the start of 2021 a new covid-19 variant that was first discovered in the United Kingdom, B1.1.7 and later known as Alpha, began to sweep across the US. In May the WHO began using the letters of the Greek alphabet to label new covid-19 variants in order to make it easier to communicate information about the new strains raising alarm bells and to remove any stigma about their origins.

In April, another variant that originated in India, and would later be known as Delta, quickly began to take hold and would soon replace Alpha as the dominant strain. It would also drive a new surge taking case numbers and deaths to levels higher than were seen from the original strain as it moved through the unvaccinated portions of the population.

The Delta variant would end up representing nearly 100 percent of all new cases in the US pushing out all other strains. Although the summer surge ebbed, as the cold weather set in case numbers again shot up. But in November Delta got new competition from a variant first sequenced in South Africa, that was quickly determined to be a “variant of concern” and given the name Omicron.

The Omicron variant has made a meteoric rise to become the new dominant strain in the US, going from a fraction of new cases to over 70 percent in just a few weeks. Although the new strain is thought to cause less severe illness based on early data it has already claimed its first victim in the US.

Increasing transmissible variants ramp up calls to get vaccinated

Worries about whether a strain would eventually be able to get past the protective barrier have been constant since vaccines were first rolled out. Breakthrough cases were detected with Delta, and initial data show that Omicron is apt at getting past the immune defenses created by the vaccines. But like all the strains before it, covid-19 has been spreading fastest among the unvaccinated and they are primarily the ones being cut down prematurely.

When President Biden took office in January, the US was racing toward half a million deaths from the covid-19 pandemic. Many more have perished due to lack of space in hospitals overflowing with sick covid-19 patents. In December the US passed another grim milestone registering over 800,000 Americans who have succumb to the disease.

Once again Biden called on the unvaccinated to get the covid-19 jab when he addressed the nation on what his administration was doing to tackle the threat Omicron poses. He also told those who were vaccinated that although they may get infected with the new strain they have a better shot at not getting seriously ill and requiring hospitalization. But he recommended that they get a booster shot to beef up their antibodies.


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