The fifth wave of the pandemic is wreaking havoc in Europe, where infection rates in some countries are now at their highest levels since early 2020. Here in the United States, an increase in infection rates and ineffectual campaigns to persuade the unvaccinated to get the jab portend an uncertain winter.

Yet most people in San Antonio live as if the pandemic has come and gone, as evidenced by the dearth of masked people inside just about every place, from grocery stores to malls, where the public is gathering in dense numbers this holiday season.

Based on the current data, including 32 deaths in the last seven days, “Everyone in Bexar County, Texas, should wear a mask in public, indoor settings,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states on its COVID Data Tracker webpage. State elected leaders long ago adopted a contrary position to the CDC and have left the matter of mask use and vaccination to personal choice.

This was my week to get the vaccine booster. Hilde Maeckle, our family matriarch, turns 89 on Sunday and remains the focus of our efforts to keep her protected against inadvertent infection. Vaccines do not offer absolute protection, so we remain on guard as transmission of the coronavirus continues to percolate locally at relatively low but persistent levels.

About 8 in 10 people hospitalized in Bexar County in recent months have been unvaccinated, but that shows that even those who are vaccinated can fall prey to breakthrough cases of transmission.

Last week data from the CDC and Johns Hopkins University showed that more Americans have died after contracting COVID-19 in 2021 than died in 2020. As the national death toll reached 773,000 last week, some public health officials noted the 2020 death count is likely an undercount due to initial unfamiliarity with the disease and a lack of systematic reporting methods and data gathering. The real death toll could be as high as 875,000.

Check into any medical practice or clinic in San Antonio and 100% of staff continue to wear masks. How medical and health professionals are protecting themselves against viral infection should be telling for those of us who place science above politics.

As local COVID-19-related deaths approach 5,000, we can give thanks to any number of individuals and organizations that have led us through the worst of the pandemic. Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and the public health professionals at UT Health San Antonio, University Health Systems and Metro Health, have acted with smart, steady, apolitical consistency, even when state leaders ignored CDC recommendations and instead moved to limit local authority in a public emergency.

Physicians, nurses and hospital staff, especially those working directly with infected patients and their families, many of whom refused to be vaccinated, are at the top of my list to thank. Firefighters and public health workers manning the testing and vaccination megasites deserve the same. School teachers, retail employees, and hospitality workers all deserve our gratitude for the risks they take showing up each day.

Early on, H-E-B set the example for retailers everywhere by smartly addressing panic buying, by implementing mask mandates through the worst months, and in its pharmacies, working to increase the percentage of the adult population getting tested, and later, vaccinated. Executives raised hourly wages and paid performance bonuses to the more than 100,000 people employed by the grocer.

Community Labs, a collaboration with BioBridge Global formed by Graham Weston and the 80/20 Foundation, Tullos Wells and the Kronkosky Charitable Foundation, and Bruce Bugg and the Tobin Endowment, attracted national attention for its approach to amplifying testing in public schools, making a return to the classroom safer for all.

The San Antonio Food Bank saw food insecurity spread rapidly through the community as the pandemic shutdown led to thousands losing employment and many others unable to work safely or to secure child care. Food distributions were greatly expanded throughout the city, resulting in tens of thousands more families being reached.

As we look ahead to 2022 with cautious optimism, the time will come to assess what we in San Antonio learned in this pandemic and how we can better unite the community in any future emergency or crisis.

Those of us who find our families healthy and whole this Thanksgiving should make the day about more than food and football, and be ever mindful of those hard hit by the pandemic who continue to struggle.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.