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Column By John Murray

Traveling changes one’s perspective, and a quick trip to Ohio this past week, and news from Cornell University, has had a profound impact on the way I view the ongoing, ever unfolding, COVID-19 pandemic.

Climbing aboard a United Airlines flight to Cleveland was an eye-opener. It was my first flight since March 2020, and despite some apprehension, I felt safer onboard my flight than I do shopping for necessities in Waterbury, Connecticut.

Everybody in Bradley Airport was masked, respectful and orderly. A quick way out of the COVID crisis is to wave a magic wand and turn the whole world into an airport terminal. Sure, there is an occasional knucklehead who refuses to mask up and gets dragged off a flight, but I saw 100% compliance and passengers being exceptionally nice to one another.

Traveling has been an integral part of my soul for most of my life, but for the past two years I’ve holstered my dreams of adventures in Cuba, Iceland and Australia to keep my family, and myself, as safe as possible as the coronavirus upended life across the planet.

Caution is not a driving force in my operating system, information is. I devour information from a variety of angles – often reading books, magazines, newspapers and blogs for five to six hours a day – and then attempt to make an informed decision about my best path forward.

When the pandemic hit I was traveling in a remote mountain region of Vietnam, just a few miles away from the Chinese border, and uncomfortably close to Wuhan. When I was scheduled to fly home in March 2020 my flight aboard Korean Air, from Hanoi to Seoul to New York, suddenly seemed like a petri dish of death. South Korea was on fire with COVID-19 infections, the hottest spot on Earth at the time. I was scheduled to fly directly into the inferno sharing airspace for 15 hours with hundreds of unmasked strangers from Seoul to New York City.

After a risk calculation in my head, I ate my return ticket, and purchased a one-way flight the other way around the world from Hanoi to Istanbul to New York. It cost an extra $1200, but moving away from a deadly fire seemed to be a reasonable decision.

Little did I know that I was flying away from one fire, and directly into another one. Unlike Vietnam, which had taken temperatures of passengers arriving in the country, the United States was naked and unprotected. When I arrived at JFK Airport on March 8th no one asked where I’d travelled, no one checked my temperature, or asked if I had any health issues. “Welcome home,” was all I heard, and within days New York City was the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.

My daughter Chelsea was four-months pregnant, and our family turtled up quickly to keep her safe from a plague sweeping the globe. We took the quarantine seriously, masked up, kept our social distance, and even when the pandemic eased up in the summer of 2020, we kept our defenses intact.

When Chelsea gave birth to her daughter, Zoe, in August 2020, we remained on high alert to protect a vulnerable infant with a developing immune system. All the grandparents had to take COVID tests before they met the baby, and no one was welcome to visit at the hospital. There was no data on what impact COVID might have on an infant and we weren’t taking any chances. When COVID vaccines were offered we stepped forward to get our shots at the earliest possible moment. We have taken booster shots and continue to wear masks in public.

There have been missed anniversary parties, high school reunions, holiday gatherings, and I have missed many indoor events and press conferences I would normally cover as a journalist. My mission statement is family first, family second and family third. Nothing else even comes close.

As of December 18th, 2021, there have been 274 million documented COVID infections around the world, and 5.3 million people have perished. The United States, with its open society and bitter partisan battle over masks and vaccines, leads the world with 50.7 million documented infections, and 804,000 deaths. In Waterbury, a city of 110,000 residents, there have been 21,713 known COVID positive infections, and 427 deaths.

These are staggering numbers, and certainly the minimum of actual COVID infections and deaths as many have gone undetected or undocumented. Like most of humanity our family is exhausted by the COVID pandemic and the extreme measures we have taken to keep our family safe, mostly from the unknown.

And now we face Omicron, a new and more infectious variant of COVID-19 that has swept through South Africa and England with shocking speed. Omicron is here in the United States and is spreading rapidly. Within weeks it is forecast to be the dominant strain ripping through American society.

This week I was surprised to read of an unfolding drama at Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York. The campus is 97% fully vaccinated and it reported an outbreak of nearly 1000 COVID positive infections among its students. Many of the infections were from the Omicron variant that marched through vaccine protections like General Sherman stormed through Georgia at the end of the Civil War. A vast majority of the vaccinated students who tested positive were asymptomatic, or experienced very mild symptoms.

“Virtually every case of the Omicron variant to date has been found in fully vaccinated students, a portion of whom had also received a booster shot,” Joel Malina, the vice president for university relations, told CNN.

This news caused a seismic shift in the way I view the pandemic now. After following virtually every preventative measure recommended by science experts – two vaccines and a booster shot – I now believe there is a great probability that I will get infected by Omicron this winter, and that my daughter and her family, including Zoe, are likely to get it too. If we get it, which odds increasingly say that we will, we have defenses in place to keep the severe impact at bay. Even little Zoe has some protection now. Her immune system is stronger, and she has received a boost of antibodies through breast milk that give her better protection than millions of children under five that are not eligible for vaccines.

We have tried to stay educated and informed. We will stay vigilant and continue to mask up and avoid indoor gatherings and keep testing ourselves. This past week, however, has given me new perspective; I can fly again, and no matter what I do it seems inevitable that I will get infected by COVID-19, and in all probability I will survive. After living 21 months tiptoeing along the edge of a razor, I feel some relief. Not much relief, but some, and at this point I’m grateful for that. •

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