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A vaccine, variants and a continuing crisis: 2021 in health care

In 2021, WUNC's reporters covered stories like the release of a COVID-19 vaccine, the emergence of new coronavirus variants, and the end of the nation's longest war — just to name a few.

As the year comes to an end, WUNC's reporters are reviewing some of the biggest stories from their beats in 2021. WUNC health reporter Jason deBruyn joined WUNC reporter and contributing Tested host Will Michaels to look back at this year in health:

On the wide distribution of COVID-19 vaccines:

"Vaccines are the number one health care story in North Carolina, in the United States, and worldwide. And the speed at which the vaccine was developed really is pretty incredible... I know that one of the memories I'm always gonna have is just seeing people lined up for yards or even miles, sometimes, if you're talking about people lined up in their cars...

"It's certainly possible that because of the work done here during this pandemic, that future pandemics, or even future flu seasons, can be blunted a little bit."
WUNC Health Reporter Jason DeBruyn

Of course, we saw the spike in hospitalizations, but that was largely in the unvaccinated group. And so we still have to mask and we still have to distance and we still have to be careful. But of course, now we have this very effective tool to help us."

"It's certainly possible that because of the work done here during this pandemic, that future pandemics, or even future flu seasons, can be blunted a little bit. I mean, it seems likely that this mRNA vaccine is going to, with just some few tweaks, be able to perhaps be the dominant vaccine against other coronaviruses or even against certain flus because of the way it's delivered into the body and the way it sends the messenger genes to the right place. So, we might look back 10 years from now and say that — certainly this is an understatement — but while there was a lot bad about the pandemic, it at least did spur some innovation that could potentially show benefits for years to come."

On the continuing opioid epidemic in North Carolina:

"In many ways, it's getting only worse, I think exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Economics and certainly loneliness are factors that can exacerbate mental health and exacerbate drug use. And of course, this is something that's also been well reported, but especially heroin and other opioids are now getting a lot higher doses of fentanyl in them so they are more deadly.

Even just through October already this year, North Carolina has had more unintentional opioid overdose deaths than it did in all of 2020, which was itself a record-setting year. Back in 2017 and 2018, there was a lot of movement to try to stop deaths and emergency visits from increasing, and they were able to do that. 2018 and 2019 saw little dips, but unfortunately, 2020 and even 2021 have seen big increases in both ED visits and deaths."

Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio

Will Michaels started his professional radio career at WUNC.
Jason deBruyn is the WUNC data reporter, a position he took in September, 2016.