A few days ago, I wrote a note about things getting better. And the pandemic is getting better. COVID cases are falling, vaccinations are rising, and businesses are re-opening. All this hasn't led to an immediate case spike (so far, at least). I've been able to mask up and return to my gym, my company office, and even the local maker space a few times.
Yet this pandemic is still far from over. Instead of ending, it is entering its next phase. I hope too many people don't get the two confused. Otherwise, we risk taking one step forward and two steps back. I'm sure no one wants that to happen at this point.
I often feel the temptation to think things are returning to the full, old normal as well. When that happens, I remind myself of some key facts that show the pandemic is far from over. There's still plenty of good reasons we should contain our optimism and stay cautious.
It isn't Over with "Herd Immunity" #
Early on, I and many others got obsessed over hitting the herd immunity threshold as the pandemic's "end." I watched the vaccination rates rise, and thought a rate of 75-85% would be a victory. But as it turns out, herd immunity can't guarantee a return to the old normal for several reasons.
- The computer models that got those numbers didn't take into account varying social circles and pockets of low or high immunity. These can vary from state to state, or even within cities. They often vary along lines of inequality due to race or socioeconomic status.
- Areas can go in and out of herd immunity. This happens when vaccinations wear off or younger folks don't get vaccinated as they age. Weather changes can force people inside more and boost infection rates.
- The virus still circulates despite herd immunity, but cases don't grow as fast. There will still be smaller chains of infection, but they're small enough to lockdowns or overloaded hospitals.
Since herd immunity isn't the "switch" to end the pandemic, it shows there isn't a real ending "switch" at all. COVID seemed to hit us out of nowhere, but it won't leave as fast.
Most articles and experts I've seen argue to focus more on vaccination for vaccination's sake. Folks have plenty of selfish and selfless reasons to get the shot if they can. There doesn't need to be some "vaccination tipping point" for us. But it also means we can't pretend everything is 100% fine after a certain amount of people get vaccinated.
We're Relying on an Honor System #
As of this writing, Americans have no reliable way to tell if other folks have gotten vaccinated or not. Conservatives have long rejected vaccine passports or anything like them, so the government dropped them too. Many businesses' "masks are optional if vaccinated" policies then become unenforceable. This honor system relies on American's being honest about their vaccination status.
Why is this bad? This is the same country where people are buying and selling fake vaccination cards. It's also one where last year, people were making fake health cards to avoid masks in stores. People that asked them to wear masks got threats of fines from the fake "Freedom to Breathe Agency." So I doubt enough Americans will honor this system. Which puts everyone's health in danger.
This "face mask exempt card" is not real. The Freedom to Breathe Agency is not a part of the U.S. government. And the ADA does not exempt you from face mask requirements. https://t.co/Y3cHW1M7bG pic.twitter.com/YBmt0Xcmwy— PolitiFact (@PolitiFact) July 15, 2020
The root of this is a culture of "not doing anything that the government tells us" held by at least half the country. Even with small but effective public health measures like wearing a mask indoors. Even if these measures help the mask-wearers as much as those around them. That doesn't stop elected officials from comparing vaccine passports to yellow stars in the Holocaust.
To be clear, I know a majority of Americans don't see that as a serious claim. They know non-vaccinated folks aren't being put into detention centers to separate parents from their kids. America hasn't done that since the long-ago time of 2018. But they reinforce the culture that undermines public health measures in the name of extremist individualism. A culture that makes this "pinky swear" approach is more likely to backfire and bring case numbers back up.
This culture is, in my view, America's biggest obstacle to escaping the pandemic. But even all the death, trauma, and grief we've suffered so far hasn't proven enough to start changing it.
There are Variant Threats #
The increasing vaccination rates are good, but many places still have low rates. These low-immunity pockets are where COVID can still circulate and spread. This lets existing variants pick up steam, or even worse, lead to new ones. Many of us in well-vaccinated areas are happy to let those areas suffer in our place. These are often areas that were already dealing with unequal racial and economic suffering before the pandemic.
We're lucky the current vaccines are holding out against the new, dangerous variants. But pushing our luck against a virus that's already caused so much damage isn't wise. The last 14 or so months of quarantine have been terrible for us all. I doubt anyone wants to risk repeating that for even one more month if a variant breaks through our current vaccines.
We need to better address vaccine hesitancy and inequity, here and globally. If not, variants will always pose a serious potential risk of destroying all our progress. We've still got a ton to work ahead of us there.
COVID will Never Go Away #
It's unlikely COVID will one day get eradicated from everyday life like Polio. More and more public health experts are expecting COVID to become a seasonal disease. This doesn't change how it's deadlier than the flu, or can cause long-term disability due to Long COVID. All the horrors of last winter can hit us again if we get careless in any of the years going forward. Which is...disconcerting, to say the least.
But an immunologist friend of mine told me something I hadn't read in any news coverage. In order for COVID to better survive, it'll likely mutate into something more contagious yet less deadly. In purely biological terms, it's in the virus's best interest to kill fewer people. Fewer deaths mean we can get away with fewer preventative measures and overloaded hospitals, even as it spreads more. This isn't a great scenario, but it likely won't lead to any more national crises.
But there's no guarantee this could happen. Even if there was, it's years or even decades away. So it doesn't change any of the current danger or risk COVID will present for at least many more years. It's going to be a long time until we can (maybe) hand-wave COVID away as "that thing we get every other winter."
Wrapping Up #
I understand the impulse to get back to normal as soon as possible. But things aren't going to return to "normal" for years, if at all. Instead of trying to bring back the old normal, we should get excited for what the next normal will be.
What will this next normal be like? I can only make some educated guess. We'll need to keep using masks and other preventative measures. These include getting tested when needed, trying to stay outside, and ventilating indoor spaces. Some activities will still be too high-risk, like giant indoor dance parties, so we'll need to find new ones. There will be frustration, compromise, and experiments.
But, over time, acceptance for this new normal would build. At least until it carries us into the next whatever the next "normal" is.