Three years after the United States recorded its first case of COVID-19, the pandemic has slipped from the front pages and seems to have knocked the public unconscious.
Children are back in the classroom and office workers are back in the offices, restaurants and bars are crowded. Most Americans have given up wearing masks, if they do, even in crowded indoor spaces.
But the epidemic is not over yet. We just pretend.
Over the past two months, the federal government has reported an average of about 450 COVID deaths each day. That’s far less than the death toll during last winter’s deadly surge, but still works out to more than 3,000 dead each week.
Covid is no longer to be feared as a disease of equal opportunity. It now mostly poses a threat to vulnerable populations, especially those 65 and older or those with other medical problems.
This freed young, healthy people to go back to their pre-pandemic lives, and that’s good news. But it also divided the population between those who feel vulnerable and those who don’t.
When pollsters at the Kaiser Family Foundation asked Americans if they were worried about getting seriously ill from COVID this winter, 36% said they were either somewhat worried or very worried. Among people age 65 or older, 43% said they were anxious; Of these 18 to 29, only 30%.
The survey also found divisions along ethnic and economic lines. Blacks and Hispanics were more likely than whites to say they worried about the disease. Low-income Americans were more anxious than the affluent.
These divisions, plus the gradually declining death rate, have made it easy to downgrade the epidemic from a national crisis to just one of many chronic problems.
“We’ve reached what I would call a level of detente with the virus,” said Jay Varma, an infectious disease specialist at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. No elected official wants to say which death is acceptable. But they basically say… [that] We accept this number of losses.”
Varma would like to see federal and local officials return to promoting mask-wearing and immediate testing — on a voluntary basis, not through mandates. But he admits that is not the case.
The anti-COVID crusade is colliding with public fatigue, said Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University.
“People decided they were done with it,” he said. “I would say we have a lot of ugly options ahead of us, and this one is the least ugly.”
That put health policy experts in the Biden administration in a difficult spot.
Their boss, the President, excitedly and prematurely declared the pandemic over in September, two months before the midterm elections.
Congressional Republicans seized on this statement to overturn Biden’s request for $10 billion for COVID vaccination and treatment. Now Biden aides are scrambling to find ways to fight a pandemic he refuses to eradicate, but with less money.
“We’re clearly in a better place than we’ve been,” Ashish Jha, Biden’s COVID-19 response coordinator, told me last week. But “we still have an awful lot of Americans getting sick and dying from this virus. We still have a lot of work to do.”
He said Congress’ refusal to provide more money has hindered federal efforts to make sure everyone, including the uninsured, has access to vaccines and treatment, and has also put federal funding for a new generation of vaccines at risk.
“This unfortunately means that more people will suffer needlessly from this disease,” he said.
Jha said he hopes to fund both priorities from existing programs at the Department of Health and Human Services, but conceded those plans are not yet ready.
He warned that the coming winter is likely to bring another wave of COVID and other respiratory diseases.
“There is a way forward to make sure this coming winter is the best we’ve had in years,” he said. “But it will take a lot of work; it just won’t happen naturally.”
Pharma has a different concern.
“People accept COVID as an inevitability,” he said. As a result, they’re taking fewer precautions over time — masking less, distancing less from crowds, less updating vaccines. This has consequences. It leads to more infections. And in the end it will hurt the economy as well.”
We shouldn’t live as if we’re stuck in 2020; The days of lockdown, fortunately, are over.
But it is best not to assume that the pandemic will cooperate with our desires.
In the meantime, avoid thinking about the vulnerable millions: the elderly, the immunocompromised, and the low-income workers who can’t afford to work from home. And don’t make fun of those of us who still wear masks to the grocery store.