I was relieved in 2019 when voters in Kentucky, where I live, rejected giving then-incumbent Gov. Matt Bevin (R) a second term. Unlike Bevin, who spent his time in office on Trump-like attacks on the press, judiciary, teachers and other institutions, his opponent Andy Beshear was at least a small d-democrat. My worry was that Beshear was also a big-D Democrat — the kind of blah, statusquo figure the party often churns out, who isn’t particularly good at politics or governing. After all, the main reason he won was that people in Kentucky disliked Bevin and had good memories of Steve Beshear, the former governor and Andy’s dad.
I was totally wrong about Andy Beshear. As Covid-19 struck, the usually mild-mannered governor was aggressive early, emphatically emphasizing the dangers of the virus in ways that helped get people in the state to take it seriously sooner than we might have otherwise. He issued a stay-athome order and required business closures before many other states did — a bold move, considering the Republicans who hold most of the power in this bright-red state wanted to take their cues from President Donald Trump. In his almost-daily news conferences, Beshear was reassuring and optimistic about how the state could limit sickness and fatalities if we all followed public health guidance. It was a moment of real leadership — and it saved lives.
Beshear, of course, isn’t the only person who rose to the occasion. So here is my list of some of the people who provided outstanding service to the country during the worst stages of the pandemic. I consulted with journalists, government officials, policy experts and others, but these are solely my choices. It no doubt leaves out many who did important work. I also do not mean to minimize the failures of government and society more broadly that could have prevented more death and suffering. Nor do I want to suggest that the fight is over — deaths from Covid-19 are way down, but 370 died of the virus on June 23.
A lot of governors were consistently supportive of mask-wearing and other policies advocated by health experts to stop the spread of the virus. And the nation’s governors as a group deserve a lot of credit for managing what my colleague Max Boot has rightly described as one of the most important achievements of U.S. governance — of American adults getting coronavirus vaccines over the past six months.
But it was easier to take aggressive steps if you were a governor (Democrat or Republican) in a blue state. In Ohio, Mike DeWine (R), like Beshear, had to navigate around a lot of conservatives mimicking Trump’s dismissive attitude toward the virus. DeWine’s innovative move to start a lottery to encourage people to take the vaccines became a model for other states and the federal government. Under Jay Inslee (D), Washington was the first state with a major covid-19 outbreak, but the worst of it was stamped out fairly quickly thanks to the leadership of Inslee and other key figures there.
Public health leaders: With the federal government often both downplaying the virus and taking a hands-off approach when Trump was in office, city and state public health directors had to make hard and politically fraught decisions. That led to intense criticism of these officials, including threats of violence, and a wave of resignations or outright ousters. But these local officials took actions that saved lives during the heat of the pandemic. It would be impossible here to list every standout official, but I will single out Ohio’s Amy Acton, Santa Clara County’s (Calif.) Sara Cody, Michigan’s Joneigh Khaldun, the Cherokee Nation’s Lisa Pivec and Maine’s Nirav Shah for their exemplary work fighting the pandemic in their communities and states.
Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases: The doctor hasn’t been perfect — he made some comments that turned out to be inaccurate and at times prioritized placating Trump over candor with the public. That said, when Trump was in office, Fauci seemed to be the top U.S. official taking the pandemic seriously. That was an extremely important role. It’s hard to imagine all of the mask-wearing, closures and other mitigation efforts that happened before Biden became president without Fauci repeatedly delivering a message that was essentially: “Ignore what the Leader of the Free World says, and take this virus really seriously.”
Adam Silver: On the night of March 11, 2020, Trump announced a 30-day ban on people from Europe traveling to the United States to stop the spread of the virus. But in my view, what really convinced Americans that Covid 19 was a super-serious threat was the National Basketball Association deciding that same night to suspend its season. Sports are one of America’s most influential institutions. So when league commissioner Adam Silver was seen to take the virus more seriously than even most elected officials, it had a huge impact, forcing a national conversation and resulting in cancellations and closures across a number of sectors.
President Biden and Ron Klain: Biden entered office with exactly the right approach — making covid-19 the highest priority of his administration. Klain, the White House chief of staff who also managed the U.S. government’s response to Ebola during the Obama administration, has led the implementation of that approach, both communicating that strategy in a calm and reassuring manner and executing it.
Vaccine scientists: Having vaccines rolled out so quickly was a critical success and a huge credit to the scientists and companies who worked on them, both those working in government agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and at companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Pfizer. Barney Graham and Kizzmekia Corbett of NIH were among the key figures in the vaccine development process.
Health-care workers: More than 3,600 health-care workers died of Covid-19 over the past year, according to an analysis done by The Guardian and Kaiser Health News. That is significantly larger than the number of U.S. military deaths — about 2,300 — in Afghanistan since 2001. This was a kind of war, and healthcare workers were our front-line troops, risking their lives for us all.
The American people: Millions of Americans stayed home for much of the past year, wore masks, supervised online schooling for their children, stopped seeing friends and family, and took newly developed vaccines. We needed leaders such as Beshear and Fauci, but we also needed Americans to become health leaders in their individual circles.
This column was distributed by Kentucky Health News, an independent news service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.