Nobody wants to write this article.
And nobody wants to read it.
Nobody wants to have to think about it.
And nobody wants to be reminded.
But living in the real world means reckoning even with things we would rather ignore. Just because we are weary doesn’t mean we can wish away unpleasantness. Just because it’s been going on for a long time doesn’t mean it’s over.
The sad reality is that COVID is still with us. It’s still evolving. And it almost assuredly has more surprises in store. Public health officials are once again raising alarm around a potent new variant that is spreading quickly through the Northeast. Hospitalization rates are rising. We’ve seen this before. Where will it end up? All we can do — and by we, we also mean public health professionals — is make guesses, educated or otherwise.
In a comprehensive opinion piece in The Washington Post titled, “The coronavirus is speaking. It’s saying it’s not done with us,” a scientist and longtime sane voice on COVID, Eric Topel, surveys the battleground. He notes many reasons why today is a far cry from the early days of the pandemic. But then he summarizes with a sentence that reads like a wake-up call: “We’re all tired, but we’re up against a force that isn’t.”
COVID doesn’t care about us. It’s on its own evolutionary trajectory. The only question is whether we help it thrive or find ways to diminish its impact.
Of all the lessons we didn’t learn from the pandemic, perhaps the greatest is humility. Science has brought tremendous benefits to human health. But the reality is, as any honest scientist or doctor will tell you, there is far more that we don’t understand about nature than we do. There are undoubtedly even more unknown unknowns — the stuff we don’t even know we don’t know.
We can hope for the best with COVID. We can lean on the fact that this is no longer a totally novel disease. Many (but unfortunately not all) of the people we meet have been vaccinated. Others may have some immunity from having been previously infected. That counts for something. As Topel writes, “Americans can take some comfort in the combined immunity from the country’s massive numbers of infections, reinfections, vaccinations and boosters. That should blunt the effect of (the new variant).”
But there are also many reasons for caution, if not outright concern. Topel continues, “The virus is talking to us, and it is telling us it has many more ways to evolve. It is revealing that it not only can fake out or elude our immune response but can also get better at penetrating our cells. What will happen next? Will we see a whole new family of variants arise that are distinct from the omicron family? It is entirely possible.”
It is a tragedy of historic proportions that COVID was politicized by the former president and his allies and enablers. This not only led to unnecessary deaths and disabilities but created an environment in which the necessities of public health more broadly and vaccines in particular have been undermined.
Now we are at a point where fatigue crosses all segments of society, and understandably so. It’s hard to stay vigilant when so much of what makes life special and joyful has been jeopardized by this threat. Meanwhile, vaccines have been wonderful in saving lives. So too have treatments. These factors have lulled us into complacency. Complacency is a common human trait. But we are in an arms race with a wily pathogen, and Topol lists many ways we are unilaterally disarming.
Meanwhile, in addition to COVID, we have become more susceptible to current and future attacks on our public health from other potential diseases. Our social safety net is frayed. The National Centers for Disease Control has lost credibility from early missteps and poor ongoing communication. Medical professionals are burnt out. Researchers are eager to get back to other lines of inquiry. All of us wish none of this had happened. But it did. And it’s still happening. And it might happen in ways in the future that could be worse than what we’re seeing now.
Instead of a mature approach to a legitimate threat to the health, security, and welfare of the United States (and the world), we are looking at Republican witch hunts targeting Dr. Anthony Fauci and growing antagonism to even the most basic public health measures.
There is not sustained leadership on this issue on either side of the political aisle. There is apparently no political benefit for such, as Americans crave normalcy, and many are willing to ignore the grave reality and look the other way.
Nobody is arguing that we should return to the draconian measures of the pandemic’s disorienting early days. We should constantly reassess risk and adapt accordingly. The more we know about the virus and the damage it causes, the more we can consider, with nuance, what should be done.
Ignorance, in this case, isn’t bliss. Nature doesn’t care what we think. We would do well to remind ourselves of that lesson. It can help us with COVID and with other challenges that no doubt lie beyond the horizons of our knowledge and experience.
Finally, if you aren’t up to date on your vaccines and booster shots, please schedule them.
COVID, in its many variations, still stalks and strikes. It hasn’t quit. We can’t afford to quit defending against it.