In a now-viral video, hundreds of students and teachers gathered to welcome two Ukrainian children, refugees of war, on their first day of school in Naples, Italy. In an entrance hall, the throngs lined a staircase and balcony as they applauded, cheered, and waved small Ukrainian flags.
It was a stirring moment to watch this brother and sister, who had lost so much in their homeland, being embraced in a new country. But there was also this sign that their well-being will be paramount in their new school — every student, teacher, and staff member wore a face mask. So did the two children.
This was an unintentional but pointed reminder: The COVID-19 pandemic is not over.
One could almost be forgiven for believing otherwise. When Hawaii ends its indoor mask mandate on March 26, it will be the last state to do so. Businesses nationwide have dropped proof-of-vaccination requirements for customers. Those home COVID tests that were impossible to find in December (and were exorbitantly expensive when available) are plentiful again on drugstore shelves.
Social distancing is so 2020.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House’s chief medical adviser, hasn’t been a regular on TV in weeks. And with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s vicious invasion of Ukraine dominating headlines, cable news stations’ once-daily parade of medical professionals has been supplanted by retired generals and foreign policy experts.
At his recent State of the Union speech where most in attendance were unmasked, President Biden took a cautious victory lap. “Thanks to the progress we’ve made in the past year, COVID-19 no longer need control our lives,” he said.
Here’s hoping this won’t become Biden’s “Mission Accomplished” moment. Americans moving on from COVID doesn’t mean COVID has moved on from us.
Though new COVID cases, hospitalizations, and deaths driven by the Omicron variant have declined from devastating highs in January, nationwide more than 1,000 people a day are still dying. Around the world more than 6 million have died from the virus; by the end of April, it will have killed at least 1 million Americans.
Vaccination rates have flatlined. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 66 percent of Americans are “fully vaccinated.” Yet once boosters are factored in, that number drops to less than 35 percent. That means tens of millions of Americans remain unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated. And there’s still no approved shot for children under age 5.
Waning vaccine immunity remains a concern. Pfizer and BioNTech are seeking emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration for a second booster shot for those 65 and older. That recommendation will probably extend to younger people as well, because existing vaccine protection was not as robust when Omicron became the dominant variant.
Meanwhile, South Korea, once touted for its deft management of the virus, suffered its worst numbers ever Thursday with more than 620,000 cases and 429 deaths in a 24-hour period. China has more than 37 million people back in lockdown with its worst outbreak in two years. Hong Kong now has the world’s highest death rate. According to Johns Hopkins University, cases have swelled at least 37 percent in Greece, Ireland, and Austria in the past week.
Like America, all of these countries eliminated many of their COVID protocols. Now Omicron subvariant, BA.2, reportedly even more contagious, accounts for nearly 25 percent of this nation’s new cases. What other countries are enduring will find its way here. We’ve seen this pattern before, and the CDC is already reporting an uptick of COVID-19 in wastewater samples nationwide.
Yet what we keep hearing is that we’re getting back to normal. And this is what “normal” looks like — at least 1,000 people a day perishing from COVID; American vaccine interest that has fallen off a cliff; and persistent vaccine inequality and lack of access around the world, especially in Africa, which prolong the pandemic and leave everyone vulnerable.
“Everybody wants to return to normal, everybody wants to put the virus behind us in the rearview mirror, which is, I think, what we should aspire to,” Fauci said recently. Even if the virus seems to be subsiding here, he warned, “we have gone in the right direction in four other variants” only to have COVID come roaring back again with horrific results.
Perhaps there will come a time for post-pandemic victory laps. But this moment needs more vigilance, not fewer protocols or threats to federal funding for virus treatments. COVID is still here, but what seems to be all but gone is the leadership on every level to do everything possible to eradicate it.