Is this pandemic over or what?
From what I’ve seen in Boston, New York, and Washington, most seem to think the answer is yes. Stores, restaurants, subway trains, and airplanes have been filled to capacity with those eager to return to normal life, many of whom are opting to go unmasked.
But the latest COVID subvariants have other ideas. We may be through with COVID, but it certainly isn’t done with us.
“People are just exhausted of taking all these precautions,” said Dr. Marcus Pereira, assistant professor of medicine and medical director of the Transplant Infectious Diseases Program at Columbia University.
“But the virus is not exhausted,” Pereira added. “And it’s just using this opportunity to continue to infect people and find new ways to re-infect people who are either vaccinated or previously infected.”
A recent Columbia study gives reason for alarm: the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants that have surged to become the dominant strains of the virus in the United States and elsewhere are finding their way around vaccinations and immunities from previous infections. Have you or someone you know tested positive in the last month or two, only to get hit with another infection already? Or have you, like fully-vaccinated and twice-boosted Dr. Anthony Fauci, managed to avoid catching COVID until only recently? That’s why.
So where does that leave folks like me: the minority of Americans who have never caught COVID and who wish to remain uninfected? What about those who have been infected and don’t want to repeat the experience, for fear of long COVID or putting the immunocompromised people in their lives in danger?
After two years of sociopolitical warring over government-imposed mandates and mitigation efforts that have left even the most conscientious public officials unwilling to reimpose restrictions, the answer is clear: We are on our own.
In a recent NBC News interview, Fauci said what we all should already know by now. In places where these immunity-evading subvariants are surging, “you really should, in an indoor setting, a congregate setting, be wearing masks.”
Yet, many people don’t.
Of course, there have been great strides in tackling the pandemic since it started. The availability of vaccines and boosters, improvements in treatment including the use of monoclonal antibody therapy, and a greater understanding of how the virus spreads have brought us a long way. Hospitalizations and deaths have not spiked to levels seen earlier in the pandemic, either because the recent variants are naturally milder or vaccines are making infections less serious, experts aren’t quite sure yet.
But we may not be so lucky with the next variant, Pereira told me.
“Who knows what happens with BA.6, BA.7, BA.X — whatever the next virus is,” Pereira said. “That is truly a concern.”
That terrifies me. As a lifelong asthmatic, I’ve learned that even mild respiratory infections like the common cold can make me feel as if there were a large boulder on my chest. Walking from one side of the room to another or climbing a single flight of stairs suddenly become laborious tasks. My last bout with seasonal flu sent me to the hospital. I don’t want to end my unbroken streak of negative COVID test results now, or ever. And I want to do what I can to keep others with underlying respiratory conditions, those who are immunocompromised, and others like transplant patients, safe.
I wish we lived in a society where the collective experience of a deadly pandemic made people default to a position of protecting their neighbors. I wish the selfishness of wanting to sit on a plane without a mask was trumped by an understanding of the potential deadly threat that poses to others.
I wish we didn’t have the weird and dangerous social peer pressure that caused a loved one to confide to me that he is less likely to wear a mask indoors if no one else is wearing one, despite knowing that in such circumstances he should be more inclined to mask up. People don’t like to stand out. I wish more people would stand up for their fellow citizens. And I wish our leaders didn’t put their fear or fatigue of public pushback above public health. But here we are.
I want life to return to normal as much as anyone. But more than that, I don’t want to catch or spread the virus. That means this summer, and beyond, I’ll be behind a mask.