by Sheryl Burt Ruzek, For The Inquirer
Published, February 8, 2022
I know this isn’t what people want to hear, but we can’t declare the pandemic is over just because we’re tired of it. After a long career in public health, I cringe as pundits and politicians breezily call COVID mild, no worse than the flu. Recently, Bari Weiss declared she was “done with COVID” on Real Time with Bill Maher, – calling restrictions a “catastrophic moral crime.”
When I heard that, I realized I’m done with anti-vaxxers, perpetrators of misinformation, and a culture quick to elevate private wants over public needs.
Unfortunately, now that cases from the omicron surge are finally starting to decline, I expect to hear even more pundits shout that they’re “done” with COVID. When the World Health Organization special envoy David Nabarro warned that the virus is still dangerous as nations began easing restrictions, a Forbes writer wondered “what the people making these optimistic predictions know that he and the rest of the WHO don’t.”
What Nabarro and other experts know is that we’re not “done.” And COVID’s not just like the flu. More than 890,000 people died from COVID in the U.S., and over 5.7 million worldwide. Between 2010 and 2019, flu only killed an average of 35,778 people in the U.S. per year.
Nabarro said COVID is “full of surprises” – and he’s right. There’s so much scientists don’t know about coronaviruses, and serious, unexpected effects may well emerge in the future. This can happen with viruses—for instance, people can develop post-polio syndrome decades after contracting polio, and shingles years after long-forgotten bouts of chicken pox. Physicians struggling to treat long-haulers can’t tell them what to expect in a week or month, let alone years out. There are already more than 50 long-term effects of COVID reported in the scientific literature, ranging from fatigue and headache to lung disease. For those suffering debilitating symptoms months and years after a bout, there is no “done with it.”
I get why people want to move on from COVID. I am weary of avoiding indoor activities and long for the pandemic to be over— or at least die down. But I am older and immunocompromised. I don’t have the luxury of being “done” with COVID just because I want to move on.
When I get discouraged, I express gratitude for vaccines, remarkably effective against hospitalization and death, especially with a third dose. I appreciate masks that allow people to work, travel, and enjoy daily activities when case rates remain relatively low.
But masks and vaccines haven’t ended the pandemic (yet). In the U.S., we’ve fully vaccinated only 64% of the population. Only 10% of people in low-income countries have received even one dose. Until we increase global vaccine access and muster the political will to require vaccination, this pandemic won’t be “over.”
When will COVID finally be over? A lot depends on what we do next. For starters, we need to prepare for the unknown, and not wash our hands of COVID prematurely because we’re tired of it. I know this isn’t what people want to hear. Last year, when vaccinations became available and case and death rates began dropping, infectious disease researcher Michael Osterholm, warned the worst of the pandemic might still be ahead because of how variants might evolve, how infectious or able to evade immunity they might become. He reports being told by several television producers that his message was “too scary and defeatist to put on the air.”
We have to accept that we face an uncertain future.
Continuing caution – and restrictions – are hard, but humans have been through a lot worse. I know someone who grew up in Amsterdam during World War II, and sometimes had nothing to eat but tulip bulbs. Many will live with COVID consequences forever.
This virus isn’t done. Let’s face the current level of the surge in our own communities honestly, accept uncertainty head on, recognize many still need protection. With this, and a lot of patience, maybe eventually we can be done with COVID.
Sheryl Burt Ruzek is a professor emerita at the College of Public Health at Temple University.