We have a new epidemic of mixed messages on our hands. On the one side are those experts who remain very worried about another surge before the vaccine delivers us to the promised land and on the other those who see the vial as half-full and rising with each jab.
One thing’s certain: The most highly contagious B.1.1.7 variant that brought Britain to its knees over the winter and is now ripping through Europe has landed in all 50 states in no time at all. Michigan’s been thrown back to its worst days. A dozen states and counting are walloped.
That’s why Dr. Mike Osterholm warned last Sunday on Meet the Press that in the next two weeks, we will have “the highest number of cases reported globally since the beginning of the pandemic” and have to act accordingly. Although one in four adults is vaxxed and everyone will be eligible come April 19, he concluded, “we are at the beginning of a fourth COVID surge.”
At the same time, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former FDA head with a polished bedside manner, sees the pony in the manure: The current spikes don’t necessarily mean another surge because so many of the old and the vulnerable have been vaccinated. In the meantime, those who get infected don't get as sick given that the therapeutics that already saved the connected, like Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani, are now widely available.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, an inveterate optimist—you have to be to work 40 years on AIDS—sees the corner clearly but also that we haven’t rounded it, which is why he’s saying that “if you want to make this a metaphorical race” between the potential for a surge and vaccinations, “the vaccine is going to win this one.” But that’s a delicate way of saying it hasn’t won yet.
And right now, while the race is still on, euphoria, induced by spring weather and the vaccine, has sharply reduced sheltering in place or getting food to go. Restaurant traffic has returned to 75 percent of pre-pandemic levels. The Texas Rangers opened their stadium to full capacity for the first game. Theaters opened wide for Godzilla vs. Kong, which took in $49 million last weekend and passed $300 million worldwide. As for airlines, more than a million people per week are throwing caution to the wind. While planes are relatively safe, weaving through crowds from who knows where practicing what level of precautions to get to the gate, is not. You might as well shimmy up to a bar at happy hour.
Meantime, the decline in cases in states with fewer restrictions may just be a result of what those states don’t want to see rather than the herd immunity in swathes of the population they hope they achieved. Alabama has registered a 52 percent decrease, but that may be because it’s now testing a mere 36 per 100,000 residents. Florida was ground zero for risky behavior over spring break by young visitors who dispersed without getting tested and could carry the virus home. We’ll know in 14 days whether or not Texas officials were right to let the Rangers fill the stands.
Democratic governors, too, are feeling the pressure to reopen, even in states that already experienced dreadful spikes. With scandals piling up, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is madly reopening. So is Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan. She locked down hard to get the virus under control but has issued no new mandates despite the state reaching a seven-day positivity rate above 16 percent, the highest ever recorded.
In a contest with a virus we still don’t understand but which understands us enough to mutate, it’s foolish to relent. We’ll turn the corner only if vaccines proceed faster than the seven-day national average of cases. The first week in April, cases were 18 percent higher than in March.
Who if not experts can get us to hold two things in our minds at once: that victory is on the way but in the meantime eat your vegetables, huddle in sweatpants, and keep watching Netflix.
Slip in new warnings with information showing five cases of a novel “double mutant” in California and rising cases among the young, especially when playing sports. Unless you’re cosseted in hotels like college teams during March Madness, a basketball game, with shouting and heavy breathing, can be as infectious as choir practice near Seattle last March was. Singing hymns almost a foot apart left 52 singers infected and two dead. Before that, there were only two cases in the county.
With recent surges in Britain, India, Brazil, and elsewhere, what makes us think we can eat, pray, and play in the wild? Why risk dying to see an action movie that can be streamed on HBO? The vaccine will eventually win the race Fauci is running but until then, living as if it’s still 2020 is a matter of life and death.