News & Views » The Incision

No, the pandemic isn’t the new normal

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Believe it or not, we’re making progress on the pandemic — just not the way we wanted to.  - CITY OF DETROIT, FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS
  • City of Detroit, Flickr Creative Commons
  • Believe it or not, we’re making progress on the pandemic — just not the way we wanted to. 

It's been a year and a half since the pandemic took its first life. As cases, hospitalizations, and deaths quickly mounted through the fateful spring of 2020, many of us settled into a new "pandemic normal." Nearly 700,000 American lives later, it sometimes feels like we haven't made progress at all. After all, more than 120,000 people continue to be infected every day, and more than 2,000 people are dying every day in this country. Our lives still look more like they did in spring of 2020 than they did in 2019.

The psychic brutality of a delta surge coming on the heels of our long-promised "hot vax summer," has compounded our existential dread. We thought we'd be heading into a new school year without the angst over whether our kids might catch COVID-19 at school ... or make Grandma sick.

It's left us wondering if we'll ever have any semblance of "normal" again. That fear has been accelerated by the continuing obstinance of a remarkably large portion of our population around the vaccine, and the confusion over COVID-19 policy on everything from vaccines (to boost or not to boost?), to masks (when and where do I wear them if I'm vaccinated?), to schools (are there enough air purifiers at my kids' school?).

So I wanted to take a moment today to inject some hope into your future plans. No, it won't be like this forever.

Not enough people are getting vaccinated, but they're still building immunity.

When the history of this pandemic response is written, I believe one of the biggest failures of communication will have been about masks for vaccinated people. Both the choice to announce that all vaccinated people could remove their masks back in May — and the choice to announce that they should put them back in indoor spaces in July — were premature. Worse, taken together, they communicated that our vaccines were less effective than they really are.

The problem is that people think about immunity in black or white terms — you're either immune, or you're not. But it's actually a shade of gray. Though data from the Provincetown outbreak showed that vaccinated people could transmit the virus, they are, in reality, far less likely to — a shade of gray.

Similarly, even unvaccinated people are building immunity. They're just doing it the hard way. Delta has made sure of it. Every time someone recovers from delta, it leaves them just a bit more immune than they had been. Though immunity acquired by way of infection is not as effective or long-lasting as vaccine-mediated immunity, it still contributes to our collective or "herd" immunity. And as we well know by now, the more people who have some level of immunity, the more protected we are as a collective, our collective shade of gray hues toward more immunity.

In fact, researchers at the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub analyzed data from nine models of COVID-19 case transmission and combined it into a "model of models." Their findings suggest a slow and steady decline of cases through March of 2022, driven by the higher rates of immunity as a result of the delta surge.

"End" may mean endemic — and that's not a bad thing.

As I've written in the past, there is no way to mark the official end to a pandemic.

The late-2020 narrative around the pandemic was that if we weren't able to achieve "herd immunity" then the virus would become endemic. But what does "endemic" mean, exactly? Many interpreted "endemic" to mean that the pandemic would be like this forever.

The technical definition of "endemic" is "regularly found among particular people in a certain area." At issue here is the word "regularly." That could mean that every third person is infected — or it could mean that it's one in 10 million. What's clear is that "endemic" doesn't mean "like this forever."

It's almost definite that COVID-19 will stay endemic following this pandemic. But not like this. To put this in perspective, the flu that comes around every season is an endemic form of the 1918 flu that killed millions around the world. Though it remains an exceedingly deadly disease today (please, get your flu shot!), it doesn't dominate our lives the way the COVID-19 pandemic has to date.

So that "end" may just mean flu season's a little more annoying each year — a far improvement from where we've been at since March 2020.

Some good things will be here to stay.

Let's be honest, for all the worst moments of these last 18 months, we have seen some accommodations that we realize we kind of like. Work from home is here to stay in many sectors — as is the sense that life is more than meetings and deadlines.

Many others have developed a newfound appreciation for the value of their labor. Months of unemployment subsidies, many higher than the minimum wage workers made before, have reminded people that their time and labor is an asset to their employers. And what looks like an "underemployment crisis" to those employers is an "underpayment crisis" to those workers. As workers flex and the market rebounds, we'll likely see a job market with higher wages than the one we left in 2019.

Society is moving forward — maybe slower than we'd hope, but we're heading in the right direction. Each day more families vaccinate, and we get one step closer to the world we knew 18 months ago. What comes next may not look the same as what we knew in 2019, but it won't look like March 2020 or September 2021 either.

Originally published Sept. 28 in The Incision. Get more at incision.substack.com.

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