Life After a Pandemic? Not Just Yet . . .

COVID-19 metrics today are still worse than last summer’s. The threat will long linger.

By Dennis Boone

If you’re old enough to recall the name Leon Lett, you understand the risk of celebrating your touchdown before you cross the goal line.

He was the Dallas Cowboy who was about to rub it in on the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVII, inches from the end zone with a fumble recovery. Because he let up, the Bills’ Don Beebe was able to strip him of the ball before he could score. Touchback. It didn’t effect the game—Dallas won going away, 52-17—but a blunder like that in front of 100 million watching on TV etches one’s name and place in sports history. 

The lessons from his embarrassment have a particular resonance nearly 30 years later.

Most of us grew weary of dealing with pandemic long ago, but the pandemic didn’t seem to mind what we thought of it—COVID-19 cases rose and fell across last summer’s Delta spike in the U.S., then again with Omicron in mid-winter. Those cases defied mankind’s best efforts to control them, whether with restrictions on commerce and gatherings, closings of campuses and schools, compelled wearing of masks, and even the vaccines that had been billed as the way out.

Lots of relief in recent weeks, then, as one state after another, one city after another, one entertainment venue after another have dropped the restrictions on vaccination status and mask usage. Even the chief executives of the nation’s biggest airlines have penned a letter to the White House, seeking an end to mandated mask usage aboard U.S. flights.

To which anyone following the numbers might respond . . . “Huh?”

Sure, it’s great that daily case counts in America have dropped from nearly a million in January to below 30,000 in late March. Yet even at that level, case counts are more than three times their 2021 low. Just before the Delta variant hit, the U.S. bottomed out at slightly more than 9,000 new cases on Memorial Day 2021. 

That figure was a statistical anomaly, of course, with many reports not being filed on a national holiday. Still, it says a lot about mass psychology that the fear factor has dropped so much, so quickly between that point in the pandemic and the current climate. 

Some of that comes from a false sense of security inspired by charts that show the dramatic hook and downward trend in cases, hospitalizations and deaths. We’ll grapple for years as a nation with the death counts, locked in arguments about who died “of” COVID and who died “with” it, suffering from multiple co-morbidities. Likewise, we need better, uniform and consistent approaches to measuring case counts; we’ll never know how many of the nation’s 82 million confirmed cases were recorded by questionable test-cycle thresholds.

The one metric we should have been watching all along was hospitalizations, a far more tangible indicator of the virus’ toll. Even there, it would help—a lot—if hospitals reporting daily patient counts to the Mid-America Regional Council would distinguish between those hospitalized for the virus itself, and those who were admitted for non-COVID reasons, only to test positive while there.

And for Pete’s sake, we need some sort of low-cost, effective, at-home testing regimen that identifies live cases that are completely asymptomatic. Without knowing the true case-count denomin-ator, public efforts like contact tracing are exercises in fiscal waste. Especially when the viral spread goes national.

The thing is, this virus is still out there, and it’s never going to go away. Anyone tracking metrics from Israel and Australia—two highly vaccinated nations—understands that.

 People at high risk—we know by now who they are—need to remain vigilant, take care of their health, lose weight, keep their distance from others in public and, yes, wear a mask in group settings. (And shame on those who would shame them for it.) If they suspect infection, they should seek confirmation immediately with testing, and begin treatment before hospitalization is their only hope.

Hospital staff breathing a collective sigh of relief need to understand that some number of COVID-19 cases will always require beds, and in some cases, intensive care space. Employers will need to factor cases of exposure into their benefits planning, and perhaps make adjustments that anticipate the next viral goodie to come our way. 

That might mean remaining on heightened alert for the rest of their lives, but that’s the world we now live in.

In one sense, the relaxed approach to COVID-19 marks the return of individual responsibility to management of one’s health. If we’ve learned one thing from the pandemic, it’s that government at any level can’t protect your health for you. Anyone who believes otherwise should have to explain how more than a million deaths since early 2020 represents a public-policy success. 

Now’s not the time to spike the football.

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