As India descended into a Covid-19 tragedy that dwarfed anything the country had experienced in the pandemic so far, with hospitals inundated, oxygen supplies short and vaccines reportedly being stolen from warehouses, American politicians seven thousand miles away were clamoring to end pandemic restrictions.
Representative Jim Jordan railed at Dr. Anthony Fauci in the House chambers, “You don’t think Americans’ liberties have been threatened the last year, Dr. Fauci? They’ve been assaulted!” Alabama Governor Kay Ivey told Fox News, “We have been at this for more than a year now, and we have simply got to move forward. Endless government mandates are not the answer.”
Many Americans are looking forward to a summer of quasi-normal human interactions, where it’s okay to invite your friends for a barbeque, belly up to a crowded bar, attend a concert or eat dinner in a popular restaurant. Texas and Florida have already allowed beaches and bars to open to capacity. The mayor of New York City, a year after its catastrophic outbreak, announced a lifting of restrictions on businesses on July 1, only to be one-upped by the governors of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, who will remove restrictions on May 19. As vaccinations reduce the virus’ ability to spread, new cases are now expected to begin dropping exponentially. The summer of love is at hand.
But the pandemic is not over. In the U.S., the nation is still divided in its willingness to accept vaccines or heed precautions against infection. Vaccination rates have peaked and herd immunity now seems unlikely before next winter, almost guaranteeing that pockets of people will remain vulnerable to the coronavirus in the fall, as the cold weather closes in. So will millions of people throughout the world, who are still vulnerable to infection and have little prospect of getting shots anytime soon.
As long as the coronavirus circulates widely, it will have plenty of opportunities to mutate into troublesome new forms that chip away at the effectiveness of vaccines. The prospect that dangerous new variants will trigger fresh outbreaks—with the accompanying lockdowns, travels restrictions and calls for social distancing and mask-wearing—is a dark cloud over hopes of a return to pre-pandemic normal in 2021 and 2022.
Public-health messages in the U.S. have been confusing at times. The Centers for Disease Control’s revised guidance for masking and distancing requires a color-coded chart to follow. Even as some scientists and public-health officials celebrate the considerable progress the U.S. has made in its battle against COVID-19, others insist that the U.S. is not yet out of the pandemic woods. “We’re by no means in a post-pandemic phase that some sections of America would wish we were,” says John Moore, a virologist at Cornell’s Weill Medical College, echoing a common sentiment.
If the first phase of the pandemic was characterized by the clear and present danger of a pandemic virus to more than 7 billion people whose immune systems were totally unprepared for the new pathogen, the second phase we’re entering now is full of ambiguity, uncertainty and division.
The Numbers Game
When Dr. Fauci announced at the end of 2020 that vaccines would be distributed in the spring, he was optimistic that the U.S. would achieve herd immunity—a level of immune resistance in a population that eliminates, or sharply curtails, the virus’ ability to spread—by the fall. “If we do it correctly, we could have 70 percent-to-85-percent of the population vaccinated. When that occurs, there will be an umbrella of protection over the entire country that the level of virus will be so low that you will essentially have been able to establish herd immunity,” Fauci told WebMD in December.
It’s now clear that this is not likely to happen.
In February, epidemiologist Ali Mokdad and his colleagues at Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, a non-profit research group in Seattle, were sifting through data that his group collects from all over the world and uses to make mathematical simulations of how things like seasons, mask-wearing and vaccinations will affect the course of the pandemic. “We were looking at these numbers and were like, ‘Oh, no. No’,” he recalls.
That night, Mokdad couldn’t sleep. He called his mother in Beirut, Lebanon, who is in poor health and whom he hasn’t seen in a year and a half; he decided that night to buy a ticket and go visit her, because he thinks it may be his last chance to see her for a while.
“There will be lockdowns next winter,” he says. “Travel will be restricted. We are in a bad position.”
The calculations that upset Mokdad clearly showed that herd immunity was not in the offing in the U.S. For one thing, children below the age of 12 won’t be eligible because vaccines won’t receive emergency-use authorizations in time to administer them before the end of the year. (Pfizer recently announced that it will seek authorization for a vaccine for children under 12, but it’s not likely to be approved and administered in time.) All told, only about 75 percent of U.S. citizens and residents will even be eligible for vaccination before the cold weather starts to set in, he says.
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