Will this pandemic ever end? Here’s what happened with the last ones

I pitched my editor on the idea in early May. Every adult in America could get a vaccine. COVID numbers started to fall. If the Roaring ’20s came after the Spanish flu a century ago, did that mean we were on track for another Roaring ’20s now? Would “Hot Vax Summer” give way to Decadent Gatsby Party Autumn?

I started to dig in. A number of compelling parallels emerged: America 100 years ago had staggering income inequality. A booming stock market. Racial uprisings. Anti-immigrant sentiment. A one-term president plagued by scandals after he left office. Plenty of material for a story.

Then the pandemic didn’t end.

Vaccinations stalled. The Delta variant fueled new waves of infections, hospitalizations and deaths. By September, some states had more hospitalized COVID patients than they did during the winter surge. The economic outlook for this decade has gone from “champagne-soaked” to “room temperature.” In late November, the World Health Organization announced a new “variant of concern”: Omicron, which is currently on the cusp of pummeling California.

Life engagement aide Belinda Danger, right, hands Doris Otis a sign with her reason for getting the COVID-19 vaccine Feb. 4, 2021, during a vaccine clinic for Sunnyside Health Care Center residents at Community Memorial Hospital in Cloquet. Director of Life Engagement Toni Hubbell took pictures of each resident after they received their vaccinations to print and hang in their day room so residents can see each other. 
Tyler Schank / File / Duluth News Tribune

Life engagement aide Belinda Danger, right, hands Doris Otis a sign with her reason for getting the COVID-19 vaccine Feb. 4, 2021, during a vaccine clinic for Sunnyside Health Care Center residents at Community Memorial Hospital in Cloquet. Director of Life Engagement Toni Hubbell took pictures of each resident after they received their vaccinations to print and hang in their day room so residents can see each other.
Tyler Schank / File / Duluth News Tribune

I called a meeting with my editor. I said I didn’t think it was a good time to write a story in which the premise was “this pandemic is over, now what?”

The pandemic wasn’t ending. Would it ever?

This is not humanity’s first time staring down a seemingly unstoppable disease. Pandemics (a disease affecting a large number of people in multiple countries or regions around the world, per the World Health Organization), epidemics (a disease affecting people in a country or region) and outbreaks (a sudden occurrence of an infectious disease) have plagued us throughout history. Just in the past century, we’ve survived a few.

How did those end? And how might we get ourselves out of this one?

Spanish flu

How it started: Unclear, but probably not in Spain. It was a particularly deadly strain of H1N1 influenza and first took root in the U.S. in Kansas.

The disease was so

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