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Opinion: The pandemic isn’t over. Why do we act like it is?

The current surge is largely out of sight. But it won’t be the last one, and they may not always be so mild

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A bottle of Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.

A bottle of Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is pictured at a vaccine clinic at the A. Ray Olpin Student Union at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

When my family took a road trip to visit relatives earlier this month, the last thing we thought about was COVID-19.

Inflation? Yes, it waited for us at every gas station and restaurant. The recent rash of airline cancellations? That was why we decided to drive, rather than fly. The drought? It was all around us in vivid shades of brown. The upcoming election? We were reminded of it every time we pulled into a gas station and saw a sticker on the pump, pointing at the price per gallon and announcing that “Biden did this.”

But COVID? Call it pandemic fatigue. We knew it was out there. We knew about the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants. But, so what? We are vaccinated. We’ve had our boosters.

Most of the United States doesn’t seem to think much about the pandemic any more. We don’t mask. We don’t distance ourselves from each other. As a CNN headline put it last March, “We are so over Covid-19.”

But it, of course, is not over us. Apparently, we don’t get to decide.

That headline accompanied a story about a Monmouth University nationwide poll that found 73% of Americans agreeing with the statement: “It’s time we accept that COVID is here to stay and we just need to get on with our lives.”

There, again, is the illusion of control. Getting on with life has always depended on the mercy of extenuating circumstances, such as accidents and disease. COVID-19 has become like an irritating and deceptively dangerous roommate who always talks about the same thing and never leaves you alone. 

A pair of recent opinion pieces in The Washington Post summed up the current state of the nation. On the one hand was a piece by the editorial board noting how the new variants are expert at eluding the protective power of vaccines.

The virus, the board said “is speeding up once again, mutating, evading immunity and still on the march. The arrival of subvariant BA.5 should be a reminder that the finish line in this race is nowhere to be seen.”

The nation, it said, is stuck at a “high plateau of pandemic misery.” The way the new variants are spreading ought to make us resort to the old precautions — masks, social distancing, etc.

On the other hand was a piece by Leana Wen, a professor at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health. She argues that health officials are right not to react with alarm to the current surge. She quoted virologist and pediatrician Paul Offit, who said the virus “will be here for my lifetime, my children’s lifetimes, and their children’s lifetimes.”

The goal should be keeping people from serious illness. Vaccines and boosters are doing that. 

A day after we returned home from our road trip, my wife and I both began to feel poorly. Using a home kit, she tested positive. I tested negative. But we both had the same cold-like symptoms and coughs. We isolated for a few days, until we felt better. 

The current surge remains largely out of sight. People tend to test at home, as we did, and few people report positive results to any authorities. No one knows the true extent of the spread.  

Meanwhile, the latest official figures show that Utah’s hospitals have 242 patients confirmed to have COVID-19. That’s up from 68 on April 14, but nowhere near the 853 last Jan. 27. As of July 19, 40 patients were in intensive care, down from 234 last October.

For the most part, the new variants seem to produce mild symptoms, although, of course, not for everyone. But will it always be so? 

A recent report in Nature said the virus keeps coming back, “Like a Hollywood franchise that churns out sequel after mind-numbing sequel.” 

It said studies suggest the strains are becoming milder, but no one should be complacent. “Viruses don’t necessarily evolve to become less deadly.”

That’s not a cheery thought as many of us, vaccines surging through our veins, walk boldly through life and enjoy vacations as though things are back to normal. Clearly, they are not.