We’re now in a very weird pandemic phase. On Twitter, doctors such as Eric Topol sound five-alarm warnings about the latest subvariants of omicron. Offline, even in blue states, people are back to parties, bars and restaurants — and will soon be flying around the world with no testing requirements to return to the US. Things feel as if they’ve lost any coherence. There’s no discernible strategy or guidance on what Covid precautions we should still be taking.
Danish social scientist Michael Bang Petersen, of Aarhus University, told me that familiarity with Covid is changing people’s attitudes. Many stopped fearing the virus once they contracted it and recovered. In Denmark, he said, studies show 80% of the population has been infected. Here in the US, a similar study showed about 60% had had Covid as of last February — before the latest wave started.
And people are taking cues from those around them. Social signals are really important, he said, so it’s very difficult to keep your guard up when others are going back to normal. Behavior can change in a cascading way. People wonder why they should bother if nobody else is. “That’s straight out of basic psychology of collective action,” said Bang Petersen.
Of course, some people are still being cautious and still have not caught Covid, such as epidemiologist Michael Osterholm of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.
He wears an N95 mask in public, limits his social contacts, sometimes asks guests to test first, and avoids restaurants. “There’s probably more transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in the last 30 days than there had been in any 30-day period in the entire pandemic,” he said.
He admits this is based on his own anecdotal observations. The important point is that nobody has a good idea how many cases are occurring out there because we’re seeing only a fraction of the tests that have been done. Many people are testing at home, and others may not be testing at all.
And that means it’s hard to adapt our behavior to the situation — the way public health officials urged us to do during previous waves. Osterholm added that compared with previous surges, there are relatively few deaths this time, so the death rate is getting closer to something people are used to seeing with flu. “We don’t really know for certain how to act,” Osterholm said. We’ve never been expected to change our everyday lives because of influenza. But that might all change again if the next variant is more dangerous.
Reporters at a Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health press briefing this week wanted to know whether the pandemic was over. The answer, given by Tom Inglesby, MD, director of the Center for Health Security, was no. The other critical question was whether it still made sense to try to curb cases. Inglesby said it did — but stopped short of recommending universal masking or social distancing. He did stress ventilation, which could suppress superspreading events, as well as making sure high-quality masks are available for those who want them.
Bang Petersen said that, going forward, public health authorities need to acknowledge that those and other pandemic restrictions were costly, and not just in economic or educational terms. “We know from research that social isolation is something that has a number of costs in terms of well-being.” It’s bad for our mental and physical health. And constant mask-wearing is isolating. It’s hard to hear, to connect, to communicate with others.
That’s a point that often gets lost on scientists and public health experts. The fact that people are socializing again, without masks, doesn’t mean they’ve stopped caring about their health or the health of older, more vulnerable people. Socializing for many people isn’t something frivolous. It’s vital for their mental health.
So there’s hope for a more coherent future, Bang Petersen said, as long as public health officials take the social and emotional costs into account, and impose only rules or recommendations that have a substantial, science-backed benefit. That means pushing for better ventilation in buildings, creating more compelling booster campaigns, and issuing clearer guidelines to help older and more vulnerable people avoid unnecessary risks. And be prepared for future variants — by continuing to do the genetic sequencing needed to find them and planning for action if something more deadly crops up.
The pandemic’s end is not playing out in the jubilant way it was supposed to last year when the White House had planned to declare independence from Covid on July 4.
“I think people are just psychologically done with Covid,” Osterhom said. “If you look back at the 1918 experience … In 1918 and 1919, there were multiple waves, it wasn’t just 1918. And people were quite compliant with public health recommendations, limiting public gatherings, etc. By the spring of 1920 when it got just past a second year, people said, “Ah, forget it, you know, we’re going to move on.”
More from Bloomberg Opinion:
• Covid Boosters, Like Flu Shots, Need a Yearly Schedule: Lisa Jarvis
• Covid Testing Fliers From Outside US Is Unnecessary: Tyler Cowen
• Gen Z, Gen X and Millennials All Basically Agree on WFH: Chris Hughes
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering science. She is host of the “Follow the Science” podcast.
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