For so long, I felt like we were waiting for Covid-19 to end. I’m now learning that was a misplaced hope – the virus, which has proven to be wily and capable of variations that make it even more transmissible, is likely here to stay. Not for months or years, but for good.

As 2021 comes to a close, I’m adjusting my expectations of a horizon for Covid to one that’s indefinite. And I continue adjusting my own risk calculations. Things I do now that resemble the old normal – traveling on airplanes, hosting friends for dinner, eating at restaurants – once felt menacing. Now they’re again part of life, along with conversations about health status: “Are you vaccinated?” and “Have you experienced any Covid symptoms?” are part of the brunch-planning protocol these days.

Medical professionals have long understood that Covid would be here for the long haul. Dr. Allen Radner, Chief Medical Officer at Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare System, reminds me that the messaging was never about ending Covid – that’s my hopefulness playing tricks on me – but about minimizing death and reducing strain on the healthcare system. As he wrote in an opinion piece in the Weekly in May of 2020, “While we are hopeful that the virus will ‘pass through’ or mutate to an attenuated form, there is simply no convincing reason to expect this to happen.”

Looking back, Radner says, “It was a way to non-threateningly say, this isn’t over.”

The reason we sheltered in place, he says, was never to eliminate the virus – it was to buy time for the health care system to catch up. “Part of the reason was not to overwhelm our healthcare system, because health care systems are just on a razor’s edge,” he says.

To that end, the new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control that Covid-positive patients can return to work after a five-day isolation, down from a 10-day isolation, is a relief for hospitals. For example, Radner works with an MRI tech whose only symptom was a mild sore throat, but he was required to isolate for 10 days. “That’s a huge problem in health care, where we are already short-handed,” he says.

The other big reason for shelter-in-place and other onerous policies was to give time for a vaccine to be developed.

The tragedy of the current moment isn’t that Covid is surging again (Radner attributes the county’s recent uptick to Thanksgiving, and thinks an omicron surge locally is yet to come) but that more people aren’t vaccinated by now. Only 70 percent of the eligible population in Monterey County are fully vaccinated.

“Right now if everybody was vaccinated, we wouldn’t even be talking about it,” Radner says.

He’s seen just one otherwise healthy patient who was fully vaccinated who was hospitalized. As of Dec. 27, there are 32 Covid-positive patients hospitalized in Monterey County, well below a peak of 217 last January, but well above the lows of two to five in the summer.

But we’re still in the midst of it, for now. The Monterey County Health Department’s Operations Center has yet to conduct its post-mortem review of Covid-19 crisis response, because it’s still ongoing.

We are used to living with the seasonal flu and its hospitalizations and deaths (and getting annual vaccinations). Monterey County Assistant Director of Public Health Kristy Michie says it’s likely Covid will begin to resemble the flu, at least in how we treat it – something to avoid, but not as something that runs life off the rails.

It was only a few years ago that I began to get a flu shot; I figured I was young enough and healthy enough and that if I happened to get the flu, I’d recover no problem. Then I learned that I had a responsibility to get a flu shot – not for myself but for my role in public health, to protect the stranger in front of me at the sandwich shop or a server at a restaurant, in case I was infectious. It’s about protecting each other. And I’m reminded that while Covid has taken its toll in many ways – from devastating businesses to annoyance of canceled plans – it’s also taken its worst toll in loss of human life.

As of this writing, 645 people in Monterey County have died from Covid.

“I appreciate that people are tired,” Michie says. “But we need to do our best to continue to protect our community.”

Sara Rubin loves long public meetings, red pens and reading (on newsprint). She has been editor of the Monterey County Weekly since 2016, and has been on staff since 2010.

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