I love Christmas. I love the sparkling lights, stockings hung over the mantle, and tinsel-wrapped trees. I love warm mugs of hot chocolate and warmer embraces, matching sweaters, and all the other trappings of festivity that brighten a cold winter. But most of all, I love traveling to see my family for Christmas, braving the packed airline terminals and terminally delayed flights. But not this year; this year, I will be staying at home.
To be fair, I wouldn’t have been able to travel for Christmas anyway. It is my turn to work the holiday week in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at the large children’s hospital where I am in my third year of training as a pediatric resident. Christmas has its magic, but the PICU is also magical in its own right. Here, highly trained physicians, nurses, therapists, and other specialists work to save children from illnesses which a generation ago may have killed them. They often succeed.
However, there are some diseases that we cannot always cure, no matter how extensive our training. As this year has taught us all too well, infectious diseases can still wreak havoc on our lives and on our livelihoods, exposing our weaknesses and inequalities.
Over the last century, we have made incredible strides against infectious diseases. Brave microbe hunters of the 19th century gave way to a 20th century explosion of antimicrobial discovery that promised to conquer infectious diseases for good. At the same time, new vaccinations armed our own bodies with weapons to fight infections that once caused immense suffering. Thanks to bold scientists like Maurice Hilleman, who aimed to eradicate every infection that hurt or killed children, many illnesses are now largely relegated to textbooks.
But these times are changing. As I write this, there have been well over 14 million cases of COVID-19 in the United States and over 275,000 deaths, with new infections nearing 200,000 per day. Thousands of American children have lost parents, grandparents and neighbors to this plague. Furthermore, harms to children reach well beyond the case load. UNICEF estimates that 150 million children worldwide have been pushed into multidimensional poverty due to the COVID-19 pandemic; 1.6 billion children and young people have been impacted by school closures; increasing numbers of children are becoming malnourished as food systems are compromised; access to life-saving vaccinations may be disrupted; and new social and economic stressors exacerbate mental health challenges. Thus, COVID-19 threatens the wellbeing of our most vulnerable children in countless ways.
Recent vaccination data is promising, but there is still much work to do before any vaccine is fully tested and widely available. In the meantime, per CDC guidance, staying home as much as possible is still the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones from contracting and spreading the virus that causes COVID-19. It is cruel that so many things that benefit us as human beings – gathering with our friends, connecting with our neighbors, and exploring our communities – are precisely the joys that this pandemic has stolen from us. However, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to worsen, and even small gatherings contribute to the rising cases.
So, to protect myself, my family, and our country’s children, I’ll stay home for Christmas. Instead, I plan to wear my Christmas sweaters to the hospital, and to look forward to the rebirth of spring.