As Americans start a third summer living amid the specter of the coronavirus, their attitude to the pandemic has shifted.
Even as infections rise to levels that are four to five times higher than the same point last year, the push for normalcy is winning out.
Experts say it’s not surprising; because of widespread vaccinations and treatments available, many people no longer see the virus as the threat it once was.
“We have seen that for many individuals who are not at extremely high risk for severe outcomes, and who are vaccinated and boosted, that COVID has morphed from a really serious threat to someone’s health and morbidity and mortality to a cold that we deal with and can recover from,” said Keri Althoff, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“And, you know, the truth of the matter is, this was a part of our goal to work up to … our population level immunity,” Althoff said.
A year ago, there was widespread optimism as cases were so low that the virus seemed on the verge of being defeated. Yet mitigation measures, namely masks and vaccination requirements, remained in place.
Now, almost all masks or vaccine requirements have been deliberately abandoned or overturned in court. The U.S. is averaging about 100,000 new cases every day, but movie studios are releasing summer blockbusters to packed theaters, families are celebrating weddings, and bars and restaurants are full.
Living with the threat of a COVID-19 infection has become the new normal for Americans who are ready to move on.
“People are tired of the changes that they’ve had to make to their lives related to COVID-19 and so eager to get back to normal,” said Mercedes Carnethon, epidemiologist at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
“And what they’ve seen with increased experience, two plus years into the pandemic is that, if they know people who’ve had COVID-19, most of them—and this ignores a million people who have died—but most of them have recovered,” Carnethon said.
Hospitalizations stand at about 3,500 per day and deaths are hovering around 300 per day. They are higher than last summer, but also relatively low compared to the omicron surge in January.
“While those numbers remain higher than I’d like them to be, they’re lower than … what we’ve seen before with cases and hospitalizations and deaths,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said during a June 1 interview with NPR.
“And that’s because we have the tools now to conquer this with regard to both vaccination, boosting and our antivirals,” Walensky said.
Walensky noted that about 55 percent of the population is living in an area with either medium or high transmission, and about 23 percent are living in an area of high transmission.
The dominant variants circulating currently are the most infectious yet, and new research increasingly shows that prior infection will not provide lasting protection against the newer strains.
“We really would encourage people who are in these areas of high COVID-19 community levels to continue to wear masks in public indoor settings to prevent transmission,” Walensky said.
Even as many in the country look to regain a sense of normalcy this summer, not everyone is on equal footing.
“There is nothing wrong with operating in that manner and acknowledging that you or your family’s personal risk is low. However, there are individuals who are in those settings because they have to be,” Carnethon said.
Millions of people are still vulnerable, particularly racial minorities and low-income populations who don’t have the luxury of working from home or avoiding public transportation.
“I think it’s very easy to ignore those populations and say, well, I’ll be fine. My family will be fine … because we don’t have leaders who are able to articulate the pain and loss that, for example, Native communities have faced, that Black communities have faced,” Carnethon said.
According to Althoff, the only way to succeed in a “new normal” is to make sure the people who were disproportionately impacted by the virus don’t continue to fall through the cracks.
“This isn’t a time to quit and scale back and take a vacation from COVID. This is the time to make sure that we’ve learned from what’s happened … to continue to move forward with our lives while reducing the risk of hospitalization and death. And that takes individual level decision making and it takes policy,” Althoff said.
For example, the Biden administration is rolling out thousands of new federally-supported “test to treat” sites nationwide, where patients can get tested and prescribed Paxlovid or molnupiravir by a health provider on the spot.
Infectious disease experts have said “test to treat” sites can be an important tool to help make treatments more accessible, but authorities need to do a better job ensuring they are accessible to everyone.
“I don’t quibble with the messaging that we need to return to normal, but we cannot pretend that everyone can live a pre-pandemic life. We need to remain respectful of the severe threat that COVID-19 continues to pose to a subset of people in our community,” Carnethon said.