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Cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID-19 have all plummeted since mass distribution and administration of the vaccines began. Physicians who have treated countless patients sick with the disease are reporting with relief and joy their first consecutive days without seeing any COVID-19 patients in their ICUs.

How did we turn the tide from the dark days of January 2021, when 125,000 people were hospitalized with the disease, with thousands dying every day? 

As the numbers of cases and deaths finally head in the right direction, let’s look back at how PIRG responded to help save lives during the greatest health threat in a century. 

Matt Wellington, public health campaign director, appeared on MSNBC to show that more than 1,000 health professionals signed an open letter urging President Trump and state governors to take immediate action in order to save lives.
Addressing the testing and PPE shortages

In the spring of 2020, no one knew how widespread the virus was because of a serious lack in tests and testing infrastructure. Health professionals wore garbage bags and reused single use masks for days to try to stay safe amidst a critical shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE.) The federal government passed responsibility to states and local governments to procure their own supplies, which resulted in a chaotic marketplace riddled with price gouging and counterfeit merchandise. 

We consulted with health professionals, supply chain experts and other stakeholders to formulate the right approach— a transparent, centrally coordinated effort from the federal government that would streamline PPE sourcing and testing infrastructure. We raised awareness for that approach and rallied public support, eventually sending thousands of public comments to Adm. Brett Giroir, the person in charge of testing efforts, advocating that everyone who needs a test should be able to get a test. 

In letters to the Trump Administration signed by mayors and hundreds of doctors we emphasized that the current system did not adequately address the crisis. The letters requested that the federal government centralize the supply chains and increase funding. In a series of national media stories and press conferences we spotlighted stakeholders including the mayor of Denver and emergency medicine physicians. We continued to call for solutions like fully utilizing the Defense Production Act (DPA) throughout the crisis. 

In President Joe Biden’s first months in office, his administration implemented several of the measures we and other health groups had been screaming from the rooftops for, including full utilization of the DPA to procure PPE, providing robust funding for testing and vaccine distribution and central coordination of the COVID-19 response effort. 

Slowing the spread

In early summer of 2020, policymakers across the country defied public health recommendations and eased or repealed restrictions meant to curb the spread of COVID-19. However, most states that rolled back restrictions had not lowered their case counts enough to contain the virus through aggressive testing, and their testing infrastructure was insufficient anyway. COVID-19 cases skyrocketed, hitting new records in July, with the worst outbreaks concentrated in the South and Southwest.  

With no other readily available options to slow the spread of the virus and deaths mounting, we crafted an open letter to decision-makers calling for another temporary stay-at-home order; closure of non-essential businesses; and a renewed COVID-19 response effort. We asked some of the top experts in their fields to lend their names—virologists, epidemiologists, emergency medicine physicians and more. 

The “Shut down, start over, do it right” letter struck a chord. From a handful of signatures and news stories to nearly 1,500 health professionals signing from nearly every state and national news coverage from outlets such as CNN, MSNBC and NBC Nightly News, millions of people heard the message. Reporters who knew about the letter asked governors if they would consider another shutdown. We got our health professional signers in front of the TV cameras and on the airwaves, so the message came from credible science-based sources. 

While few states followed all of our recommendations, several did take important steps in the right direction. At least six states established or expanded their mask mandates, and at least 10 states paused or even rolled back their reopening plans in the weeks following our letter. Hawaii was the only state to follow all the recommendations, and it paid off. Unlike most other states, which experienced massive spikes in the winter that dwarfed summer records, Hawaii’s case counts dropped and never rebounded to that level.

Vaccinating the country against COVID-19

After large-scale vaccine production began, our role shifted to demystifying distribution and informing the public about the hows and whys of vaccination to the public. We organized a series of national webinars with health experts to give reliable information about the vaccines to reporters, local officials and policy-makers. 

Large swaths of the American public are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19. But we still need to ensure as many people as possible get vaccinated to protect themselves and their communities. Some people need to hear about vaccine safety and efficacy from trusted messengers such as physicians to feel confident getting it. Others simply need help getting to and from a vaccination site. We’re working with community partners, health professionals and other stakeholders to make it happen.

PIRG's response efforts
Learn more about PIRG's response efforts

A look back at a challenging year and how PIRG responded to the greatest health threat in a century.