Woman smiling with mask pulled away from faceEditor’s note: As of midnight Eastern time May 11, the U.S. public health emergency declaration for COVID-19 ends. While it marks the end of the emergency, it does not mean that COVID-19 is over, however, as hundreds of Americans continue to die weekly from the disease. Americans are reminded to stay up on vaccinations, test if they have symptoms, get treatment if they have COVID-19 and take precautions if at high risk for complications.

One hundred and sixty years ago, Abraham Lincoln went to the dedication of a cemetery at Gettysburg and in less than 300 words, gave lasting meaning to the 7,058 soldiers who died in that battle for the soul of our nation. Today, as we mark the end of a public health emergency that has claimed more American lives from COVID-19 than all American battles combined, there is no single cemetery to dedicate and few words that can describe the incalculable loss we have suffered as a nation.

Our remembrance instead is spread across the million grieving homes and communities devastated by this pandemic. Today, we remember and honor the dead, extend appreciation and grace to those health care and public health heroes who have worked beyond exhaustion to save lives, and consider, as Lincoln did at Gettysburg, the task for the living.

The trials of the Civil War tested whether a nation conceived in liberty could endure. Throughout this pandemic, we have been tested to find the balance between that liberty, enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, with our constitutional imperative for government to keep people safe. Instead of giving us a reason to unite against a common enemy as Americans, this teetering balancing act further divided a fractured nation. As this public health emergency ends and we prepare for whatever comes next, one of the most critical tasks is to seek consensus on how we protect lives and livelihoods together.

We also cannot forget the bipartisan support that resulted in the development of COVID-19 vaccines in record time. Public health systems were able to put these free, safe and effective vaccines in the arms of over 270 million people. This helped protect us all, brought control over this devastation and permitted the end of the emergency declaration, though COVID-19 is still affecting people. These vaccines have saved more than 3.2 million American lives and over $1 trillion dollars. It is unfortunate that this unprecedented success — funded with taxpayer dollars and approved by nearly unanimous bipartisan margins — continues to be undermined by misinformation and partisan politics.

But as Lincoln said in his inaugural address, “We are not enemies, but friends.” We, too, must not be enemies, but friends. And as friends, the task before us now is to care for one another, to bind up the nation’s wounds, and to commit to learning and applying the lessons from this pandemic. We cannot simply move on, but we can move forward together. As we contemplate the grounds where more than 1 million dead are buried, we owe it to them to return to common ground — an America protected from preventable suffering.

— Georges Benjamin, MD, APHA executive director; and Brent Ewig, MHS, chief policy and government relations officer, Association of Immunizations Managers

Photo by Andreswd, courtesy iStockphoto