Back to Normal: Is the End of the Pandemic Really on the Horizon?

By Alexander Ayala

Since the original publication, much has changed in the race against COVID-19 in America. Originally, it was anticipated at the time of writing the last entry, that even when things eventually started to get back to normal, certain social distancing behaviors would be come or at least normative as we approached the next few years after the first out break in 2019. At that time, President Biden had announced in an address to the nation that, if vaccination numbers continued to increase at a steady rate, that America would be back to relative normalcy in time to celebrate the 4th of July without having to worry about safety and protection from COVID. However, infection rates were still climbing around the world at that time, 2nd dose vaccine retention was low, and prominent figures in the world of immunology had little confidence that the situation was improve in the near future

And yet, in spite of all that information, the POTUS Instagram account post as of April 27th, has reported that the CDC says fully vaccinated people are now allowed to go outdoors without a mask, as per their provisions. State governments are now announcing a full reopening in the near future, some as soon as this summer. Even New York City is expected to reopen before July 1st, and Governor Cuomo even claims that things will be “back to normal”. Even just a few weeks ago, these reports would seem completely unrealistic, but It seems as if the dreadful year-long pandemic is nearly at its end.

But what do the numbers say? Are experts now confident in reopening big cities given the new conditions? Could it be that cities are reopening prematurely in reaction to the recent vaccination numbers? Certain states like Florida were quick to reopen last summer, and have seen a resurgence in cases since. Clearly the affects of opening too soon can be drastic for the public if not taken seriously, but there is one measure which experts agree would be a significant milestone in putting the pandemic behind us: herd immunity.

Herd immunity is a kind of positive-externality where susceptible people gain protection from a virus without ever having to develop antibodies, since they benefit from the lower transmission rate afforded to them by immune people. In other words, the more people are vaccinated, the lower the number of possible COVID-19 hosts becomes, effectively phasing the virus out by blocking its path to potential victims. Despite never having to vaccinate or expose themselves to the virus, herd immunity would be afforded to everyone in society, given that a certain percentage of individuals have antibodies. According to consensus from experts, that target percentage lies somewhere between 60-70%.

Going forward this will be an important measure of whether or not the virus remains a serious threat to reopening, as the United States is one of the leading nations in both total vaccinations, and percent of all citizens vaccinated. Ultimately, in order to get a good grasp on whether or not it’s safe to reopen, one would need to examine the likelihood the United States will reach that 60% vaccination rate, and how far the nation has to go before it reaches that target.

Presently, only about 30% of people in the United States are vaccinated. While it may seem that some of those who have had COVID-19 previously and developed natural anti-bodies should be included in that figure, it is not currently known how long those anti-bodies will last, or how effective they are at protecting individuals from becoming re-infected by COVID. Therefore, the only accurate measure we can create of how close locations are to herd immunity, is what percent of their population is vaccinated. Unfortunately, this unfortunately cannot account for certain strains of the virus which are not accounted for in our current vaccines. Meaning that, as the population continues to expose themselves to each other in the coming summer months, the more likelihood there is for transmission of the virus among vaccinated people. Even states who have reached nearly half of all their citizens vaccinated must worry about this reality.

During the discussion after the first piece, one of the possibilities we discussed was something like a yearly vaccine requirement, which is something that employers could realistically demand of their employees, or schools of their students. Depending on whether or not the vaccination rate continues to increase at a fixed rate will before the July reopening will be an important deciding factor in whether or not that becomes a reality, because a perpetual and seasonal version of the virus like the “Mutant COVID” strain in India becomes possible as a result of new and unique infections. Moving forward, the willingness of the public to vaccinate yearly, and according to mandate will become increasingly important, but also increasingly difficult; as a health experts are concerned a certain demographic of individuals will never be convinced to vaccinate, and their numbers grow as the pandemic goes on.

Although our vision of the future is already turning to normal as the summer fast approaches: I stand by the idea that certain behaviors of society have been altered drastically, and are likely not to return at least into the near future after COVID-19. Yearly pro and anti-vax campaigns on social media, outdoor dining whenever possible, wearing masks in public as a personal choice, and maintaining distance from strangers in public are all behaviors I think people will continue to adhere to even after COVID, simply because they’re most efficient.

The health conscious mindset many Americans have become keen on since the beginning of the pandemic was one of the few benefits of the shutdown that we discussed. People don’t want to be exposed to the next man’s illness if it can be prevented either through mask wearing or distance. One of the positive takeaways from this grief is that many people are taking the health of their communities seriously after this crisis. Certainly there are already people taking advantage of the lenient mask deregulation laws and social distancing provisions, but there is yet another crowd who is going to continue wearing masks even if nobody asks them to. Simply because something is mandatory doesn’t mean it can’t also be voluntary. COVID has brought a certain sense of altruism and responsibility out of people that no crisis has in a long. People are enthusiastic about vaccinating to protect the people they love and do their part in return things back to a sense of normal. Although it’s met with an equal number of people who believe the exact opposite notion about social distancing, that cannot diminish the importance of such advocacy in our trying times. Thankfully, I believe these feelings will outlast the pandemic: now, and for many years to come.

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