An increase in COVID-19 cases as winter approaches, sparks debate as to whether a new era of life with the virus has arrived or whether further restrictions and caution are still needed.
Cases in the United States have risen to more than 80,000 a day as the weather in much of the country cools. About 1,000 people die every day from the virus, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) figures, mostly among the unvaccinated.
At the same time, the widespread availability of vaccines and booster shots has decreased the individual risk for many people.
The result is a sometimes-confusing picture where individuals and places try to figure out what level of risk to accept.
Washington, for example, on Tuesday announced it was canceling its mass command.
“We’re learning to live with COVID,” said LaQuandra Nesbitt, director of DC’s Health Department. She said the virus is becoming “endemic,” meaning it is fading into a reality of life in the background. “It’s really my way of trying to emphasize to people that we’ve moved away from this goal of achieving zero cases,” she said.
Other experts, however, were concerned that the move is premature as winter enters and with cases and deaths still high.
“The way I look at it is the last part of the crisis phase,” said Walid Gellad, a professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh. He said it would make sense to wait a few more weeks to allow more children under 12 to be vaccinated and give time for potential new antiviral treatments from Pfizer and Merck to be authorized.
DC’s move, he said, could be like taking “your foot off the gas right before you cross the finish line.”
Many experts, however, said it is guaranteed to change at least a little thinking about the virus because of the strong protection against vaccines, especially after people get their accelerating shots, and the fact that the virus will not be completely eliminated soon.
“I’m approaching it now as if it’s now a reasonable version of what the future is likely to look like,” said Bob Wachter, president of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
He said if someone doesn’t want to do a certain activity now because of COVID-19, a “statement is made that you won’t do it next year or the year after.”
“It’s no longer a short-lived sprint,” he said, noting that it might still be prudent to wear masks in crowded public areas where it’s unclear whether everyone is vaccinated.
Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, said it was “reasonable to think about abolishing mass commanders.”
But, he said, “if you can stop lifting these restrictions until early January, I think that’s better.” That would give time to get through any holiday sting and for more kids to get vaccinated.
Jha said a similar timeline could work for school mass commanders who have been a major source of conflict.
“I would keep those masks probably during the holiday season,” he said. “After every school-age child has had a chance to get vaccinated, I think it’s entirely reasonable to cancel warrants.”
Of course, many parts of the country abolished their mass commandos months ago.
Jha said that for people who are vaccinated and have received a boost, the risk of severe COVID-19 disease is generally equal to the risk of flu.
Health officials from the Biden administration are not yet ready to give the green light to easing restrictions and entering a new phase of treatment of the virus.
Director of CDC Rochelle WalenskyRochelle WalenskyOvernight Health Care – Presented by Emergent Biosolutions – 2.6M children vaccinated in first two weeks Modern calls for emergency authorization for booster dose for all adults Gottlieb kicks ‘confusing’ CDC boost message MORE told reporters on Wednesday that her agency still recommends that sites be at low levels of COVID-19 delivery for several weeks “before releasing mask requirements.”
She noted that more than 85 percent of counties in the U.S. are still in “big” or “high” distribution, meaning the CDC recommends masking indoors in public.
Antonio FauciAnthony FauciOvernight Health Care – Presented by Emergent Biosolutions – 2.6M children vaccinated in the first two weeks Fauci: COVID is still serious, not yet endemic The Morning Report of the Hill – Presented by ExxonMobil – House Democrats watch big vote on Biden measure PLI, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also said that cases and deaths are not yet low enough to accept the virus as “endemic” and a fact of life.
“We want control, and I think the confusion is at what level of control you will accept it in its endemic,” he told reporters. “And as far as we’re concerned, we don’t really know what that number is, but we’ll know when we get there; it’s certainly much, much lower than 80,000 new infections a day and it’s much, much lower than 1,000 deaths a day, and tens of thousands of hospitalizations. “
Another consideration for even vaccinated people is that there is still a chance of getting long-term “long-term” symptoms of COVID-19 due to a new infection, although that risk is considerably less than for unvaccinated people.
Wachter said there are not fully accurate figures, but estimated that the chance of a long COVID-19 is about half that much for vaccinated people who get breakthrough cases compared to unvaccinated people, and there could be about 1 in 10 breakthrough cases.
“That’s quite a risk that if you told me I had COVID now even though I’m fully vaccinated, I would at least say I wouldn’t die, but I would still be quite unhappy,” he said.
But as the overall situation of COVID-19 improves, with vaccines, accelerations and now new antiviral treatments coming in, the appropriate level of prevention becomes more of a situation where, he said, “rational people might disagree.”