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Our hard-won public health victories

Gov. Kathy Hochul on Thursday announced that a

Gov. Kathy Hochul on Thursday announced that a Minnesota resident who was in New York City last month for an anime convention at the Javits Center has tested positive for the omicron variant. Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin / Office of the Governor

If there was ever any doubt that when man plans, God laughs, omicron’s special-guest turn at the Javits Center should clear that right up.

Thursday, we learned that one person, a Minnesota tourist, was known to have been in the state of New York while infected with COVID-19’s newest smash-hit variant. That’s not surprising.

How much harm can one sniffling Minnesotan inflict on New York?

We’re about to find out, even as we discover just how well our vaccines fight this new strain. That’s because our visitor from the Land of 10,000 Lakes probably came in close contact with 10,000 people while attending Anime NYC 2021 from Nov. 19-21.

Vaccination was required to enter. Mr. Minnesota tested positive on Nov. 22. Gov. Kathy Hochul is asking all attendees at the Japanese pop culture festival — estimated at 53,000 — to get tested. Many have returned to homes scattered across the nation and globe.

So finding out how many attendees caught omicron, and passed it on, will be a learning experience. The question is whether it’s the kind of learning experience you have when you put too much garlic in your meatballs or the sort that occurs when you smash your thumb with a ball-peen hammer.

But this column wasn’t about that … until it was.

This column was about public health triumphs, huge wins in saving and bettering lives that don’t get nearly enough attention.

The idea sprang up when an extraordinary trend caught my eye: In 2000, 27.1% of New York State teens reported they’d smoked a cigarette in the past 30 days.

In 2020, 2.4% had.

That’s beyond wonderful! It means saving and extending millions of lives down the road.

So does the steady decline of adult smokers in this country, from 45% in 1954 to about 14% now.

And so does the five-year survival rate from cancer, which was 49% for people diagnosed in 1975 and 69% for those diagnosed in 2013.

Policies like added taxes, public smoking restrictions and endless educational campaigns brought smoking rates down. Advances in medical science brought cancer death rates down.

And these are not isolated wins.

In 1980, this country had 25,000 alcohol-related traffic fatalities. Now it’s 10,000 annually. In 1970, total annual driving fatalities in this country hit 55,000. Now it’s about 33,000, and with so many more miles driven that fatalities per mile went down 80%.

Cars got better, roads got better, trauma treatment got better, drinking and driving declined, and literally hundreds of thousands of people are alive now who’d have died had we not made this progress.

The trends are not all rosy, as anyone who pays attention to rising death rates from opioids and guns knows.

But progress is possible, and often comes when scientific advances and public education intersect.

Scientific advances and public education intersected at the Javits, where everyone over 12 had to be vaccinated, unvaccinated kids needed to provide a negative test, and everyone was asked to mask.

Our man from Minnesota likely wasn’t the only omicroner in the city, but his presence at Javits is both a test, and a reminder of what a huge public health challenge COVID is.

There is reason to hope there won’t be much spread of serious illness from this, that the science of vaccines and the education about masking worked.

It’s worth remembering, and reminding ourselves, that such measures often do.

Columnist Lane Filler’s opinions are his own.

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