Is the Pandemic Over?

History, and Data, Show That It Is Not


Francesco Valma@wikimediacommons

On November 21, 2019, I walked over a temporary bridge set across the Grand Canal in Venice, Italy, and bought some long white candles with pictures of the Blessed Virgin imprinted on the wax. I then joined the long line of believers entering the church Santa Maria Della Salute. Inside, the crowd squished up to metal platforms where young people, working at a fevered pace, added them to a rack with hundreds of others, lit the whole bunch at once then blew them out as they moved on to the next batch.

This ritual began in 1687 when the basilica was inaugurated to thank the Virgin Mary for saving Venice from the bubonic plague that of 1630–1631 and killed a third of Venetians. Congregants wanted to thank Mary for saving them from the plague, even though she hadn’t saved 47,000 Venetian citizens.

I had hoped to be there again this fall to repeat that ritual, to thank the Blessed Virgin once again for sort of saving the world from another plague, but for now, we have no one to thank because the plague is still with us, although may are acting like Covid-19 has disappeared.

As of Saturday, July 3, there were 183,447, 691 new daily cases worldwide, 13,304 of those in the United States. Although some states in the U.S. have seen rapid drops after the virus was introduced, several states are still currently at high risk including Missouri, Nebraska, Arkansas, Florida, Utah, and Wyoming. America still holds the record for the most cases and most deaths. Around the world, the virus, and its Delta variant, are raging in India, Brazil, France, and the U.K. among others, and the Delta variant now accounts for 30% of U.S. cases. Given that the US doesn’t sequence many positive covid tests, this is probably a gross undercount. That variant is moving fast and is more deadly than any other yet identified form of Covid-19.

And yet, this country that so badly managed the outbreak and suffered the highest per capita death toll in the world, is acting like everything is fine now. I know this because in the past 24 hours I have been “risked shamed” by friends and strangers alike. Going for coffee with friends, I was chastised for bringing a mask and told that since I was vaccinated, I need never wear a mask again. Then today, as a line of people crushed up against me outside a croissant shop and I asked about social distancing, a woman snapped at me that the C.D.C. said we no longer needed to do that if vaccinated. She then nastily offered to show me her vaccination certificate which I was sure would show her name as Karen. After I calmly responded that I was “just asking,” she backed off a little. She said the new no masks-no-social-distancing rules were given by the C.D.C. to persuade anti-vaxxers to change their minds (like that would ever happen). I pointed out that because of the new mask-off move, there was now no way to differentiate between who is vaccinated and who is not, that the unvaccinated now have a free pass to breathe into the faces of everyone else in public, so why not wear a mask when stuck in social situations with strangers. As I said to her, “But you can choose to wear and mask and social distances. It’s not mandated that you have to take them off and be close to people.” She nodded, and that was that.

Here in Philadelphia (and in line with the C.D.C.) the city says vaccinated people need not wear masks outside or with other vaccinated people. And stores can now decide individually about the mask rule. As a result, masks and other safety rules have been thrown out the window, seemingly overnight. There are a few diehards, such as myself and my friends with compromised immune systems, who still wear them into the grocery store and such, but by and large, the city is acting as if the virus was gone and there was no longer any threat at all. The data on the spread of the virus by vaccinated people is not all in yet, but it looks like once vaccinated, and if you have a breakthrough case, you have a very low chance of passing it on. But still, over 4,000 vaccinated people in the U.S. ended up in the hospital with covid and at least 650 of them died. Per vaccinated person, these numbers are low, but they are not nothing. And the C.D.C. says there is massive underreporting of breakthrough cases because many of them are asymptomatic. And yet, the C.D.C. is also the body that said vaccinated people needed a “reward” for being vaccinated (as if we were children) and seemed to not understand who they were dealing with — the unvaccinated who now have free reign to walk around spreading the virus.

 The point is, we are all still at risk, which is completely different from the black and white thinking that seems to allow people to abandon simple measures like social distancing and wearing masks inside, simple proven methods that decrease transmission. Risk is risk, and it’s confusing that the majority of the vaccinated now seem to think the risk of catching the virus and passing it on is zero when it is not. Oddly, these people join those who didn’t believe there was a deadly virus in the first place. They are all now a majority that thinks it’s over (or it was never here) and we can get back to normal life.

But it isn’t and we can’t. The Delta variant is here and we will soon see what it does to those states with low vaccination rates and to the many anti-vaxxers who will be easy hosts for infection. And there will be other variants after his one because the virus is global and uncontrolled and non-Western countries have yet to get enough vaccines to protect their citizens.

So, I hope everyone enjoyed all the July 4th gatherings, the full bars and restaurants, the plane rides and vacations, and let’s also hope the U.S. does not turn out like Israel, Britain, Australia, and places in Asia that thought they had this beat and opened up only to close down again.

And go ahead, get your supply of long white tapers with the picture of the Virgin Mary on them ready for November 21st, but don’t count on thanking anyone anytime soon. I am saving mine for November 2022.

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