We can’t ‘return to normal’ on our own

It is becoming increasingly clear that the federal government’s monthslong push to “return to normal” and get past the COVID-19 pandemic is not working.

In March, when the Biden administration unveiled its National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan and a team of medical professionals — many of them former advisors to President Joe Biden — released their own “roadmap” for moving past the pandemic, we were just coming down from the highest COVID transmission, hospitalization and death rates we’d ever experienced thanks to the highly contagious omicron variant and the goal for “getting back to normal” was clear: “The United States’ pandemic phase — with restrictive public health measures — can end when average daily deaths due to COVID and other major respiratory illnesses decline below 0.5 per 1 million Americans, or 165 deaths a day at a national level. “At that point, the United States can transition into the next normal,” the authors of the “COVID Roadmap” stated in their 136-page report. 

That report came out just a few days before mask mandates across the country — one of the only remaining public health measures we had to prevent widespread community transmissions of the airborne SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 — went away in most U.S. communities, including inside schools, grocery stores, retail shops and public buildings. 

We all know what happened next: people started “returning to normal.” Most stopped masking in public, even in crowded, not-well-ventilated indoor spaces. Many stopped testing for COVID symptoms at all, claiming “it’s just allergies” or “I just have a cold.” The majority of testing sites — which were so common during the height of the first omicron wave — went away. And though the government provided free, at-home COVID tests, those who did test positive at home were often unclear about how to report their case and therefore unlikely to have their cases counted by county public health agencies.

Now, we have a couple of new omicron variants (BA.4 and BA.5), which are more contagious than ever and, seemingly, able to get through naturally- and vaccine-acquired immunity. 

As the chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told National Public Radio this week: “Not only is (BA.5) more infectious, but your prior immunity doesn’t count for as much as it used to. And that means that the old saw that, ‘I just had COVID a month ago, and so I have COVID immunity superpowers, I’m not going to get it again’ — that no longer holds.”

And when we think about the goal of that “roadmap back to normal” released more than four months ago, we’re now averaging more than twice as many daily COVID deaths than the 165-deaths-a-day number the medical experts said we needed to see for our nation to begin moving out of the pandemic phase requiring public health measures like mask mandates. And new data released this week shows COVID-19 hospitalizations in this country have doubled since May and that the U.S. is, once again, facing a COVID surge — fueled mostly by the extremely contagious and immunity-evading BA.5 variant — in the middle of what was supposed to be our “back to normal” summer.

Clark County and nearby, heavily populated counties in northwest Oregon are currently in the “red zone,” when it comes to COVID, with community transmission and hospitalizations again high enough to be considered “high” by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which would normally — in a nation with a thriving public health system — trigger a mask mandate in public indoor spaces. 

Instead of a public health mask mandate — or any sort of collective effort to improve indoor air quality in our businesses and public buildings — to help lower COVID transmission rates, prevent people from the damage of repeat COVID infections, avoid potentially disabling “long COVID” cases and reduce our country’s daily COVID death toll (300 to 350 people a day), we are left with the feeling that we are on our own this time. 

The Biden administration pushed the “back to normal,” but the plan was supposed to include federal dollars that would help pay for research into COVID medications and vaccines, studies to help “long COVID” patients and efforts to improve indoor air quality across the country. Instead, Republicans have effectively blocked the president’s attempts to fund the strategies that could have made “getting back to normal” a much more likely scenario. 

Now, we’re left with public health policies that emphasize individual actions — masking indoors during “high” community level periods, staying up-to-date on vaccinations that, while they haven’t prevented illness, have reduced the risk of serious outcomes, and isolating when we test positive for SARS-CoV-2 — instead of returning to more effective public health policies that require collective action (indoor mask mandates, for example) to slow the spread of the virus. 

With what we now know about COVID — for instance, that even a mild case of COVID increases our risk of heart attack and stroke regardless of our age or health status at the time of infection — and the fact that experts have warned us that every single COVID reinfection increases our health risks, we should all want to not only prevent ourselves from catching COVID, but also prevent community spread to help protect our family, friends, neighbors, coworkers and the workers we depend on to keep our communities running smoothly. 

If our federal, state and local officials are going to continue to put the responsibility for COVID on the individual, we must learn to work together to protect our communities. That means acting on the current CDC recommendations for Clark County residents: wearing a quality mask indoors in public; avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated areas; testing when you have symptoms (including sneezing, coughing, a sore throat, fatigue, etc.); and following quarantine and isolation protocols when you test positive for COVID or have been exposed to the virus.