Officials should use federal COVID money to prepare for future surges

It’s strange days for those of us who have tried our best to keep current on the research and public messaging surrounding SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, for more than two years. 

We know what the data says: After a nearly six-week lull, COVID infections and hospitalizations are climbing again. COVID-related hospitalizations increased in 43 states last week. Here in Clark County, we added nearly 800 cases to the official tally between May 5 and May 12. Our new case rate has been climbing for a few weeks — and at a rate of 149.6 per 100,000 residents is now close to four times what it was when everyone ditched their masks in March. People in our nation’s largest cities, from New York to San Francisco, are now being told it might be a good idea to wear quality masks like N95s or KN95s when they’re in public indoor spaces. 

We know what public health officials have warned: That we could see another 100 million infections (that’s about 1 in 3 people) this fall thanks to waning vaccines and the fact that this virus seems all-too-capable of reinfecting people over and over again. 

We also know what the ongoing research on SARS-CoV-2 shows us: that 76% of people now suffering from the often debilitating impacts of “long COVID” were not even sick enough to go to the hospital during their initial COVID infection. “It’s generating a pandemic of people who were not hospitalized, but who ended up with this increased disability,” Dr. Paddy Ssentongo, an assistant professor of infectious disease epidemiology at Penn State University, told the New York Times this week.

The Biden administration’s public health messaging on COVID right now seems to be every person for themselves: Get the vaccine, take an antiviral if you can find it and wear a mask if you want to add another layer of protection for this airborne virus we still don’t fully understand.

Companies and government officials are rapidly moving away from the practices – communal masking, outdoor dining, easy grocery pickups, remote work environments – that have helped people avoid catching COVID for more than two years. 

For anyone who simply cannot risk catching this virus or passing it to a vulnerable loved one — even for people who don’t want to roll the dice and risk being one of those who develop serious health complications from long COVID — living a “normal” life in the absence of widespread public health measures meant to slow the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 has become increasingly challenging. 

Our local government officials are trying to decide how to spend the American Rescue Plan money meant to address the pandemic’s harmful impacts and set our communities up for future surges.

With the majority of us having already seemingly “moved on” from COVID, will we still advocate for those funds to go toward things like installing better ventilation systems in our public buildings and workspaces? Will we push officials to invest in wastewater testing systems that can sound early alarms over community spread? We will demand they provide our communities with greater access to antivirals, quality masks and COVID tests? In short, will we push our elected officials to use this windfall of taxpayer money to set our communities up for future COVID surges or will we continue to pretend that this pandemic is over and not killing more than 300 Americans every day

We know enough about COVID now to know we cannot just ignore it and hope for the best. We cannot wish it away. And we cannot keep pretending that letting COVID run rampant in our society is not putting our loved ones at risk of long-term complications or causing our most vulnerable neighbors to live increasingly isolated lives

We must implore our elected officials to use the millions in COVID relief funds to strengthen our community’s defenses against SARS-CoV-2. We should all be pushing — before the predicted fall surge overwhelms us — for more wastewater surveillance, better vaccine distribution systems, free COVID testing centers, at-home rapid tests (and a reporting system that will count those at-home positives), a stockpile of free, high-quality masks for anyone who needs one and improved indoor air-ventilation systems