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.

Back to Normal: What the Life Could Look Like After the Pandemic

By Alex Ayala

It’s been just about a year since we left campus and returned home to begin life in quarantine; an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, the infamous virus which has sent the world into an unprecedented disarray of social alienation, economic devastation, and collective suffering. One entire year later, and yet it feels as if we are no closer to a solution now then we were when this all began.

President Biden addressed the nation on March 11th, the first anniversary of the US shutdown, attempting to reassure the public of hope for better days ahead—even naming a timetable for a possible end to the pandemic. Biden stakes his belief in the American public to continue recieving vaccinations in record numbers: one million people vaccinated each day since he’s entered office according to his speech. Of most interest to Americans and even the rest of the world, Biden claims that if these vaccination administration and production rates continue, that the nation should be expected to enjoy the 4th of July together this year: a picture of relative normalcy that Americans have been longing for since the early weeks of the pandemic.

PHOTO:President Joe Biden gestures as he speaks on the anniversary of the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC on March 11, 2021.

Credit: Mandel Ngan, Getty Images

Although the anticipation of a return to the days before the shutdown is certainly a tantilizing prospect, it isn’t the first time government officials and expert scientists discussed a projection of the pandemic’s end. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in a press release with the World Health Organization in Decemeber 2020 that things may not even begin approaching where we were before the pandemic by 2022. Of course early in the shutdown, many had high hopes for a recovery in fall 2020, but after reaching each checkpoint there always seems to be no end in sight.

“There are too many moving targets” Fauci said during an interview in reponse to why he feels it’s pointless to forecast a specific timetable. “We may need to be wearing masks in 2022 if the variants come in and they sort of thwart our vaccination efforts to get everything under control.” This is a frightening possibility for the future of the virus, even with exceptional vaccination rates, new variants of the virus can undermine the efficacy of the shots, delaying herded immunity further. Additionally experts believe COVID will become something of a permanent seasonal threat, and with it there will need to be season vaccinations, not unlike influenza.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, listens during a Senate Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Hearing on the federal government response to COVID-19 Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020, in Washington.

Truthfully, what life will look like after the pandemic is still uncertain. As the number of vaccinated Americans have increased significantly in the past month, and social distancing and mask wearing have proven effective methods of stopping the spread, the world has already attempted integrating the pre-COVID way of life into this distant era. Sporting events sell seats in alternate rows, and limit the capacity to which their stadiums can be filled. Retail jobs and security checkpoints have erected panes of glass or plastic to protect workers and customers alike. Most notably, restaurants have opted for outdoor seating to allow customers to eat where it’s safe. Since these practices are a direct response to COVID, and the virus is seen to be something of a temporary issues, it’s assumed that these methods are only temporary. Whether or not it’s comfortable, experts speculate that, at the very least, these will be common practice for a least years into the forseeable future.

Credit: Lynne Sladky, AP Photo

Possibly the most drastic ramifications are in-store for the American economy. Countless local retail and food service businesses have been forced to close their doors due to financial hardship as a result of the national shutdown. State governments have made the push to prematurely reopen in order to assist those businesses by allowing them to serve customers again with limited social distancing protocols, like indoor seating and large crowds. Governor of Texas, Gregg Abbott, lifted the mask mandate and allowed business to operate at 100 percent occupancy recently, something he’s recived major criticism for. Even still, the tendency of consumers to order in to eat, and shop online for hobbyist items remains. Major retail outlets likely have nothing to worry about in terms of closure, but this could be an era in which many local businesses may never find themselves back in the market. Even from major business, shopping habits may change, as Taco Bell is experimenting with fully automated drive through locations with convoyeur belts instead of associates. Expanding outside of food service, structures like these are expected to become commonplace across America for all kinds of goods.

In this potential post-pandemic era, the class divide in the quality of life between the rich and the poor maybe become more exaggerated than ever before. Yearly vaccines which employers may require of their workers won’t always be paid for by an employer in the future. Having to pay a premium to enjoy live social gatherings like concerts or sports events will ensure that, for at least however long stadiums remain below capacity, only the wealthy will be in attendance. Job availibility could continue to fall, and beginner level positions could decrease as well, as people move online for shopping, and workers are replaced with automated alternatives. To compound all these worries, poorer individuals are already disproportionately affected by COVID-19, and it may remain that way after this year’s vaccinations.

Certainly, the pandemic has become much more threatening than anyone could’ve possibly anticipated when it began last year. Many people assumed after previous H1N1 or Coronavirus scares, that COVID-19 would take care of itself given as successful and brief quarantine period. One year later, it must be discussed if the way of social distancing is the “new normal”. Much like how the September 11th attacks permenantly ushered in an era of national security at nearly any cost—the Patriot Act allowing data collection and increased security nearly anywhere in the world— it seems that COVID will have some unforseen consequences in the future that will be incorperated into how “normal” is defined. Currently, it still feels as if the pandemic would never end, with mass availibility beginning May 1st; and when it does end, it feels as if what’s on the horizon could be potentially intimidating aswell. However, it’s certain that despite how long it may take, which direction it takes in and what happens next: this too shall pass, nonetheless.