Looking forward: What will 2021’s top stories be?

Making predictions is always risky, but, absent an epic disaster, it seems safe to say that the COVID-19 pandemic will remain among the top stories of 2021.

What that story will be, however, is much more in doubt.

Will it be a story of a gradual but steady return to normality as a growing segment of the population receives one of the new vaccines and infection rates wane, eventually reaching herd immunity?

Or will it be a story of massive suffering as infection rates continue to skyrocket and hospitals become overwhelmed before the effect of the vaccines begins to be felt? And could problems in the vaccination campaign render herd immunity elusive?

Sen. M. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, sees the pandemic up close in his role as a doctor specializing in lung diseases. He said in mid-December that 20 to 40 people were dying each day of COVID-19 in Connecticut, “and most of them should not have died.”

“It is in our capacity as a state and as a community to reduce the damage it is causing,” Anwar says of the pandemic. But he adds that the situation “will not change unless drastic, aggressive measures” are taken.

Dr. Kevin D. Dieckhaus, the chief of infectious diseases at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington, says such measures would involve “doubling down on the preventive measures that we’ve been talking about for the last eight months.”

As to the longer term, Anwar says, about 70% of the population needs to receive vaccinations for the state to reach herd immunity, where the spread of the disease is so impaired that even unvaccinated people are protected.

“Somewhere around the summertime, we will hopefully start to see family life and community life improve,” he says, adding that he is “cautiously optimistic” that people will continue to live in the “new normal” and not increase their interactions too much.

But Dieckhaus says it is “entirely possible” that anti-vaccination sentiment could cause society to fall short of herd immunity. He adds, however, that resistance to the taking the vaccines may ease as people see others take them without ill effects.

But he also warns that there could be a resurgence in the pandemic if vaccines aren’t adequately distributed to low- and middle-income countries.

2021 TOP ISSUES

COVID-19: Will vaccines lead to herd immunity, and how many will die before we get there?

EDUCATION: Pandemic’s aftermath expected to be long-lasting.

COURTS: Some changes may be permanent. Resuming trials will be a challenge.

POLITICS: Will Donald Trump continue to help Connecticut Democrats?

While Vernon School Superintendent Joseph P. Macary cautions that it is hard to guess what will happen in the 2021-2022 school year, still months away, he envisions that students will be able to return to fully in-person learning.

But he and Enfield School Superintendent Christopher Drezek say the schools will have to deal with the aftermath of more than a year of pandemic-related disruptions.

Macary’s particular concern is students who are now in kindergarten through second grade, who have been dealing with those disruptions while learning fundamental skills like reading.

The solution to that problem will be more like “a 10-year fix” than a quick fix, he says.

Drezek emphasizes that children have missed out on social and emotional development as well as academics.

On the first day of school, he says, there would normally be a lot of people hugging and teachers taking young children by the hand as they go into their classrooms. That hasn’t happened this year. Drezek says, adding, “School should be better than that.”

He also says teaching during the pandemic has taken such a toll on teachers that some may be considering career changes.

Macary believes the experience of the pandemic may lead to some permanent changes.

“I don’t think you’re ever going to see a water fountain again in a school because they’re germ factories,” he says, adding that students may be encouraged to bring water bottles to school instead.

The pandemic may also have lasting effects on the judicial system, which has traditionally involved many hearings and other meetings that bring a number of people together.

New Haven lawyer Jonathan Einhorn thinks a positive effect of the pandemic is the increased the use of videoconferencing technology to hold hearings, which he says “should have been done all along.”

In Connecticut courts, criminal cases are traditionally called into court about once a month until the defendant accepts or rejects an initial plea-bargain offer. Einhorn says that “never made any sense” in that it takes up a lawyer’s time and forces other participants in a case to take time off from work for hearings that may produce nothing more than a continuance to another date.

Under ordinary conditions, a major upcoming judicial event would be the trial of Richard Dabate Jr., who is accused of murdering his wife in their Ellington home in 2015 and trying to make it look like the work of a burglar.

But the pandemic has added the issue of when and whether the trial can happen to the usual suspense over what the evidence will show. Jury trials haven’t been held since March due to the dangers the pandemic presents to participants.

Dabate’s lawyers filed a motion in May asking that the trial be delayed until 2021 due to the pandemic. But other criminal defendants have argued that the delays in holding trials have interfered with their constitutional right to a speedy trial.

Richard R. Brown, a prominent criminal defense lawyer, says many judges have been saying when they delay trials that “the due administration of justice” outweighs the defendant’s right to a speedy trial. He doubts defendants will succeed in getting cases dismissed on speedy-trial grounds unless a time comes when trials are being delayed due to negligence by the courts or prosecutors.

One response to the delays, Einhorn says, is that judges are erring more on the side of releasing defendants on bond rather than keeping them locked up indefinitely.

In politics, President Donald Trump’s unpopularity in Connecticut has been a clear advantage to the state’s Democrats.

Democratic President-elect Joe Biden won Connecticut in a 59% to 39% landslide over the Republican Trump in this fall’s election, with the rest of the vote divided among minor-party candidates. In the same election, Connecticut re-elected its five Democratic members of Congress and gave Democrats bigger majorities in both houses of the legislature, 97-54 in the House and 24-12 in the Senate.

Thomas P. Gullotta, the Democratic chairman of Glastonbury’s Town Council, has attributed his party’s success in the last two local elections in the traditionally Republican town partly to voter reaction against Trump.

Gullotta expects that effect to fade if Trump goes into retirement. But he adds that “if Trump continues to be a force of nature, as he has been, he may keep the angst high enough among Democrats and, more important, independents” to keep their voter turnout high.

For updates on Glastonbury, and recent crime and courts coverage in North-Central Connecticut, follow Alex Wood on Twitter: @AlexWoodJI1, Facebook: Alex Wood, and Instagram: @AlexWoodJI.

 

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