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Opinion: Is the pandemic really only in the 5th inning?

COVID-19 has fallen down the list of priorities for many people. Public apathy won’t help if a new surge comes along

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A University of Utah student places a swab in a rapid COVID-19 test.

A University of Utah student places a swab in a testing card after taking a rapid COVID-19 test at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Baseball season has just started, so Dr. Manoj Gandhi, senior medical director at medical instruments maker Thermo Fisher Scientific, can be excused for using it as a metaphor for describing where we are in the pandemic.

Fortune quoted him this week saying, “We are probably only in the fourth inning, maybe the top of the fifth.” 

That certainly doesn’t jibe with what people are feeling.

Most of us are way past “Take me out to the ballgame” and the seventh inning stretch and are headed for the parking lot. 

Baseball can sometimes feel as if a complete game has been played by the fourth inning, but anyone who understands the rules knows it doesn’t even officially count as a game if you don’t make it through thefifth. 

All of which has me wondering, “If the pandemic really isn’t yet halfway over, do we even still care?”

I will admit that an inflation rate of 10.4% in the Intermountain region seems like a more pressing issue right now than a virus that infects only a handful of people a day, and for which there is a vaccine. But I also must admit that, should the disease ramp up again big time, with a variant that vaccines couldn’t intercept, we would be unlikely to respond.

State lawmakers have made it harder for local health districts to protect people, and they made it nearly impossible for schools to move back to remote learning. No one wants a return to either masks or online learning, but now those things are much smaller tools in a shrinking toolbox for fighting health emergencies.

Maybe, when it comes to COVID-19, that doesn’t matter much anymore. Health officials predict Utah will see a surge soon, or maybe a “swell,” as Dr. Brandon Webb, a specialist for Intermountain Healthcare put it to the Deseret News this week. The BA.2 variant already has swept through Washington, including the House speaker and the president’s Cabinet. It has forced Philadelphia to reimpose a mask mandate for indoor spaces. It spread through Europe faster than college students on spring break. It has, the experts say, a transmission rate 20% to 30% higher than the original omicron variant we stumbled through earlier this year. 

But even Dr. Anthony Fauci says the cases aren’t any more severe. So, should we care? 

That depends. How concerned are you about the odds you might experience long-term COVID-19 symptoms?

People often underestimate the risks of so-called “long COVID,” which doctors at UC Davis Health say affects about 10% of those infected. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes the possible symptoms as fatigue, shortness of breath, a persistent cough, pains in the chest or the joints, troubles with mental reasoning, concentration or remembering, depression, headaches, fevers, a fast heartbeat or muscle pain. Some people lose their sense of smell or taste. It’s a festival of horribleness.

A report on hopkinsmedicine.org acknowledges that many of these can be associated with the aftereffects of a variety of diseases. But, for some reason, when it comes to COVID-19 they come even to some patients who experience only mild cases. And they can last a long time.

Studies that try to evaluate how well states responded to the pandemic seldom take this into account. 

Speaking of studies, a new working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research compared the states on how they fared during the pandemic by focusing on the economy, education and mortality. Utah came in No. 1. 

The state’s economy fared well, its schools lost a minimum of school days and it had relatively few deaths. The Wall Street Journal used this to argue that lockdowns didn’t work, using Hawaii as a counterexample to Utah. Its strict lockdown crippled the local economy.

But studies tell us only what they want to measure. Both states had low mortality rates. Utah’s probably was influenced by its relatively young population. The website worldometers.info, however, lists Utah as having the sixth highest level of infections per capita in the nation, which is hardly worth celebrating, given the number of people still struggling with those horrible symptoms.

The Wall Street Journal probably is right to criticize lockdowns. But a stubborn resistance to masks and vaccines has not made any state safer, and those are measures that don’t require the crippling of an economy.

Like many people, I hope the pandemic has entered what Gov. Spencer Cox called an endemic stage, where it will be a manageable disease like the flu. It’s nice to go places without a mask. 

Maybe enough people have been either exposed or vaccinated so we no longer have to worry much. Maybe those things, like a steady bullpen, will keep the virus from scoring any more runs.

But if this is only the start of the fifth inning, we probably shouldn’t declare a final score yet.