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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / A floral COVID-19 memorial is seen outside of Joli Jardin flower shop on March 1 in Chattanooga. The memorial, on the corner of Williams and Main Streets, was of one of nearly 100 being displayed in cities across the U.S. to honor those lost to the novel coronavirus.

It's been a long, horrifying, lonely year. Coronavirus didn't just scar our spirits and leave holes in our hearts. It ravaged our psyches and put a stressful chill on our dreams of the future.

One in five Americans have lost someone close, to COVID-19, and America has buried more than 531,000 people over the past year. Some 29.3 million of us have been sickened.

In Tennessee, more than one in 10 Tennesseans (about one in nine in Hamilton County) have tested positive for the virus. Our state, with what's long been the fifth highest new cases per capita rate in the country, had witnessed the deaths of 11,623 people as of Thursday afternoon — 464 of them in our county, according to state data. Georgia has seen more than 1 million cases and 18,036 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As thrilled and hopeful as we are about the promise of new vaccines and new, responsible American leadership, we must know that we're not yet out of COVID-19's nightmarish grip — especially not with southern governors throwing away mask mandates (or, like Tennessee, never having one) and raising "open for business" signs across still very sick populations.

Though we're now registering 365 days of virus stress since the first case was confirmed in Hamilton County, we may yet be stuck longer in this grim reality of contagion. Hamilton County's public masking requirement is set to expire at the end of this month unless County Mayor Jim Coppinger resists the growing but premature pressure to lift it — even though all of Hamilton County businesses have long reopened and many never closed.

COVID-19 and its emerging variants has never been, as our former deceitful president told us, just like the flu. In fact, thanks to masking, social distancing, staying home and even business closures, ordinary flu almost disappeared this year. For example, we've seen only one pediatric flu death in the U.S. so far this season, compared with 92 at the same point in last year's flu season. Meanwhile more than a half million of our loved ones have died from COVID-19, demonstrating its dire contagion, has killed a half million of our loved ones.But the former guy lost his job in large part for mishandling the COVID crisis, which he at first denied, then downplayed, then said was real when he was infected, then downplayed again — even to the point of ridiculing those who wore masks.

President Joe Biden knows his legacy depends on bringing this catastrophe to a quick end.

Now, a year into our country's panicked retreat from schools, offices and normal social life, we've all learned that our work-a-day and family lives are much more vulnerable than we'd ever thought — especially given that this is in a time of peace, not war.

David E. Sanger, a White House and national security correspondent and senior writer for The New York Times, writes:

"The halting response demonstrated both the worst of American governing and then, from Operation Warp Speed's 10-month sprint to vaccines to the frantic pace of inoculations in recent days, the very best.

"The economic earthquake as cities and towns shuttered so altered politics that Congress did something that would have been unimaginable a year ago this week. Lawmakers spent $5 trillion to dig the nation out of the economic hole created by the virus and, almost as a political aftershock, enacted an expansion of the social safety net larger than any seen since the creation of Medicare nearly 60 years ago.

"No country can go through this kind of trauma without being forever changed."

We and 70-plus% of Americans who approve of Biden's effort believe part of that change is reflected in the two presidents' approaches to the COVID scourge we thus-far lived through. The former one said he alone could fix things; the new one calls on all of us to work together by getting shots in our arms and continuing the sound health practices of masking and social distancing until the majority of the country has adequate immunity.

While the Trump administration deserves credit for Operation Warp Speed, which led to developing and approving vaccines in record time, it made no follow-through plans for obtaining adequate supplies or to distributing the precious shots on the massive scale necessary. Now, in his first 50 days, Biden has harnessed the power of government to get a quarter of Americans halfway toward inoculation and 10% of us fully vaccinated. He's shown that government can in fact do stuff. What's more, he's spreading the return of hope.

Biden on Thursday offered two specific dates of hope: May 1, by which he's requiring all states to declare all adults to be eligible for vaccines, and July 4, when he hopes we can all again celebrate modest community and family Independence Day celebrations. In the meantime, he says, "This is not the time to let up" on our common-sense precautions — despite what we see as the negligent actions of some southern governors.

If we can just stay focused on staying safe for a few more months and getting everyone vaccinated, Biden's timeline is indeed a promising vision.

Hugging our adult children again, kissing our elderly parents and grandparents again, having an extended family dinner again — without worrying that it may be a life-or-death decision — would indeed be "Independence Day" from the quarantine of our long-dampened spirits.

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