You hear it all the time in casual conversation. People talk about “back during the pandemic,” or say, “now that the pandemic is over.”
At the same time, it’s not uncommon to hear about people being infected. Just this week, first lady Jill Biden tested positive.
Despite our most fervent wishes, COVID-19 remains among us, and there is evidence the number of cases is growing again. We embrace apathy at our own peril.
For the record, the federal government officially ended the COVID-19 public health emergency declaration on May 11. But this pandemic has always been too closely tied to politics — a place where physicians rarely roam, and that has not served the public well. Governments have at times been too zealous in closing the economy, including schools and churches. And too many people have equated common sense measures, such as mask wearing, with political philosophies and imagined agendas.
In addition, the health care community has limitations that are difficult to overcome.
Experts say the nation is incapable today of getting a firm grasp on the spread of the virus. As CNN recently reported, “the rise of rapid home tests — and general waning of public interest in testing at all — has all but erased the ability to grasp current case counts nationwide.
“The CDC officially stopped reporting aggregate COVID-19 case counts months ago, noting that data had become less representative of actual infections or transmission levels over time.”
The state of Utah continues to publish basic information about cases. Its most recent report showed a seven-day average of 133 cases per day, with a seven-day average of hospitalizations at 42.1.
Those numbers are far below what the state experienced during the peak days of the pandemic, but the daily new caseload is up 18% over the previous week, and the hospitalization rate is up 32%, suggesting something may be up. These are likely due to an omicron variant, however, not a new strain that has health officials concerned.
That new strain, BA.2.86, or the “Pirola” variant, has been found in four states. It has a high number of mutations, and health experts say it may be able to navigate around vaccines and immunizations among those who have had infections from previous strains.
A common refrain is that today’s COVID-19 variants generally produce mild symptoms. However, Pirola’s impact remains uncertain. A CDC risk assessment said, “At this point, there is no evidence that this variant is causing more severe illness. That assessment may change as additional scientific data are developed.”
That’s a giant “don’t know” that ought to lead people to take precautions.
The CDC also said an updated vaccine may be available by mid-September. Naturally, it would be wise for people to take advantage of this, even if it means overcoming a weariness of it all.
As The New York Times said nearly a year ago, “The perception of the coronavirus, in the age of vaccines and survival stories, has seemingly evolved from a deadly threat to an annoyance for the healthy.”
Meanwhile, people continue to misunderstand the scientific method and the way studies can, at times, contradict each other. As fortune.com recently noted, a scientific analysis of studies found that masks “probably” make little difference in the spread of COVID-19. However, the authors of that analysis said, “There is uncertainty about the effects of face masks. The low to moderate certainty of evidence means our confidence in the effect estimate is limited, and that the true effect may be different from the observed estimate of the effect.”
Yet some still recommend masks as giving some protection from spread.
What is certain is that COVID-19 has not been eradicated, and that its variants remain capable of mutating into something that could again spread dangerously through the population. Today, the world is equipped with vaccines and an ability to reengineer these fairly quickly to meet threats, if only we pay attention.
Transmission rates, for the time being, remain low. But regular people should remain attentive and ready to protect themselves should risks return, no matter how fatigued they are with it all.