Our View: Common sense will go a long way in meeting endemic COVID
It will be up to everyone to make smart decisions to protect their own health and the health of others.
Depending on whose data you trust, the United States has surpassed 1 million COVID-related deaths or will reach that milestone within the next week.
Grim though that number may be, it isn't receiving a ton of attention. Indeed, while COVID-19 cases are surging in many parts of the country — including Minnesota — people seem far more concerned about the collapsing stock market, soaring gas prices and crowded flights to popular summer vacation destinations.
In other words, people are ready to be done with COVID-19, even though it clearly isn't done with us.
We get it. For more than two years, the pandemic has dictated our behavior, and we've had enough. We want our kids to learn at school, not at home. We want to eat at our favorite restaurant on Friday night, even if the weather is lousy and the patio is closed. We want to meet face-to-face with our friends, family and co-workers. We want to see smiles, not masks.
We're almost there.
Experts disagree about how close the world is to an official end to the pandemic, but we clearly are much closer to the end than to the beginning — especially in the United States. On April 26, the CDC announced that nearly 6 in 10 Americans had contracted COVID, and that number grew in the next two weeks as a new surge swept the nation.
But hospitalizations are down. Fewer people are on ventilators. Deaths are waning. Vaccines and infection-acquired immunity appear to be pushing us toward the point where COVID is best described as “endemic,” rather than pandemic.
Endemic COVID will be the new normal, and while we're all eager for normalcy, we also must accept that some aspects of life will not and should not go back to the way they were before COVID.
Endemic COVID, simply put, means that the virus will always be with us. Just as influenza and cold viruses constantly circulate, COVID will never disappear. It will surge, wane and mutate. Some variants will sicken millions but cause few serious problems. Others will be less contagious but far more dangerous.
Researchers, doctors and pharmaceutical companies will craft annual vaccines to combat the virus. Some of those vaccines will be highly effective. Some will not. Many millions of people will get those vaccines as soon as they are available. Millions will refuse them, even if they are free. Some will regret that decision later, as they lie in ICU beds.
In other words, people will make their own choices and live with the consequences — and there's no excuse for making uninformed decisions.
When COVID hit, it was the great unknown, and our elected leaders and health experts had to step up and make tough choices that affected everyone. Business closures, mask mandates and remote learning were implemented out of an abundance of caution, and we have no doubt that these measures saved hundreds of thousands of lives while scientists worked tirelessly to develop effective treatments and vaccines.
But we'd argue that endemic COVID cannot and will not be managed via government mandate. It will be up to everyone to make smart decisions to protect their own health and the health of others.
That means no more “pushing through” colds and/or flu symptoms. Gone are the days when it was acceptable, even commendable, to take some medicine and show up for school, or for work at an office, retail store or restaurant despite a sore throat and a runny nose. For the forseeable future, every cold should be viewed as a likely case of COVID, which means you stay home and avoid every unnecessary up-close interaction.
Of course, this recommendation must cut both ways. Employers will need to give their workers the freedom to stay home when necessary — which means some level of paid sick leave, even for part-time workers. Yes, a small percentage of employees will likely take unfair advantage of paid sick time, but that's going to be part of the new normal with endemic COVID.
Then there's the issue of face masks. While some level of mandates will likely continue at hospitals and clinics, and short-term mandates will happen in classrooms when schools encounter sudden surges (as Rochester is currently experiencing), we don't expect any return of national masking requirements on public transit or in large public venues.
Instead, we expect people will be left to make their own decision about what's best for themselves and for those around them — and we hope that this freedom will de-politicize the mask issue. In order for that to happen, we need to stop judging each other.
Someone who wears a mask on a plane or while shopping at Target shouldn't be seen as being pro-mandate, pro-Biden or anti-Trump. Perhaps they have a pre-existing condition, are simply cautious or had COVID a week ago and are doing what they can to look out for others. A mask is a medical device — nothing more.
Likewise, those who don't wear a mask in public venues shouldn't be seen as reckless crusaders, Fauci-haters or Trump admirers. They should be seen as people who have thoughtfully assessed their own level of risk — and the risk they potentially pose to others — and are doing what they believe is best.
Of course, this kind of tolerance and individual freedom only works if the vast majority of people make responsible, thoughtful choices. Every time a maskless, coughing person boards a plane or attends a concert, there's a risk of super-spreading a new COVID variant that, in a worst-case scenario, would necessitate government action along the lines of what we've experienced for the past 30 months.
Let's not go there.