After 18 months of being stuck in our homes – if we were lucky enough to do so – and being surrounded by death and suffering, we are all ready to move past this pandemic. But a talking point has begun to circulate among journalists and public health experts: that we need to learn to live with the virus. According to this view, the virus will eventually become endemic – it will still exist, but as rates of immunity in the population increase as a result of prior infection and vaccination, it will cause only cold-like symptoms in those who do get infected. We will learn to live normal lives again with that small risk. But while widespread immunity and less severe symptoms may be inevitable, we don’t know how many people will die or be left with long-term symptoms – that will be determined by our nation’s ongoing response to the pandemic, or lack thereof.
Conservative politicians like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis claim that vaccination protects individuals sufficiently from death and hospitalization and that anyone who wants a vaccine has gotten one; vaccinated people can therefore return to normal life, and unvaccinated people can deal with the risks. But while it is true that vaccines reduce an individual’s risk significantly, we cannot exit this pandemic individually.
We cannot exit this pandemic individually.
This past summer, we saw the consequences of a premature return to normal life. Both unvaccinated people, who remain at much greater risk of hospitalization and death, and vaccinated people contributed to the spread of the virus as the use of masks disappeared overnight in many places. Pediatric cases of Covid skyrocketed because most children aren’t vaccinated yet. Hospitals became overwhelmed, mostly with unvaccinated patients. Of course, this puts immunocompromised people (for whom vaccines are less effective) at risk as well. Ignoring the virus is untenable.
Learning to live with the virus is not an individual state of mind – it calls for a robust policy response. This will require two steps: reducing the rate of transmission and making sure we can contain outbreaks as they occur.
Once community transmission is lower, we will need to make significant investments to keep it that way. A Pandemic Response Agency should be created to manage funding and personnel for test-and-trace operations, quarantine housing, free masks and ventilation upgrades to schools and other buildings.
Despite initially trying to project a measure of optimism, the White House seemingly cannot ignore the delta variant any longer. It has announced measures including reducing the cost of rapid tests, sending free tests to food banks and mandating an OSHA standard that requires employers of 100 or more workers to vaccinate or test weekly. But these measures are still insufficient. A more ambitious response may seem politically unfeasible, but times like this demand the impossible.