Don’t want to read about COVID? It’s completely understandable. Variants keep coming no matter what we do. Most everyone you know who has gotten the virus has probably recovered completely if not rapidly (but don’t say that to victims of serious “long COVID” – about 3% to 5% of cases). If you got vaccinated or had COVID before, your chances of dying are no longer a serious topic of worry.
Your life today seems far more impacted by the response to COVID rather than the disease itself. Inflation was caused in part because too much money was pumped into the economy for too long. The fracturing of highly tuned supply chains came from work stoppages tied to COVID mitigation efforts. Children continue to suffer emotionally, socially and educationally from the school closures and masking mandates. Too many people no longer want to work after getting a taste of government largess and freedom from workplace requirements. Drug use has soared, and mental health problems have multiplied.
While we might like to wallow in our resentment and believe that COVID-19 is behind us, the facts argue otherwise. New variants of SARS-CoV-2, especially BA.5, are causing cases to spike globally because they are highly transmissible. The U.S. is currently experiencing a surge with actual cases numbering perhaps half a million per day. BA.5, the strain rapidly coopting others, is especially adept at “immune escape” – that is, the ability to infect even vaccinated targets. Those without four shots are significantly more vulnerable. Prior infection helps, but not much more than full vaccination.
Yet astonishingly, even doctors seem to be oblivious to this reality, as a recent meeting of emergency room professionals became a super spreader event. The public has now resoundingly rejected any further sweeping non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) such as masks, distancing, etc., though a push for better ventilation systems may be the lone exception. Meanwhile, government cannot surmount this rejection because it has lost credibility and trust.
It’s obvious why. Officials playing politics and arrogating to themselves “emergency” powers in the name of public health too often shoved aside concern for the impact on the public and used those powers excessively or inappropriately. It took only a few obviously idiotic restrictions based on the concept of an “abundance of caution” or the urge to “do something” to broadly undermine the credibility of many elected officials. And government health care professionals dithered, reversed themselves, and sometimes lied for fear of admitting what they did not know or of encountering dissent. A few of their policies even killed people, such as the nursing home issues in New York and New Jersey. One highly visible failure goes a long way.
It is especially depressing that the single most important achievement of government, namely funding acceleration of vaccine development, was overshadowed by other policy failures because politics usurped the stage. And the mass media contributed to the debacle. Too many “experts” with dubious real expertise were given a platform. Social media faithfully adopted the government’s party line, right or wrong. One result was such extensive confusion that much of the public simply tuned out completely.
So where does that leave us? We are currently dependent now on individual initiative to slow the spread of the virus. Unfortunately, too many people are either unaware of what they can do or unwilling to return to restrictions on their actions. Without doubt, though the best long-term hope is pharmaceutical – vaccines that are variant insensitive, novel preventatives like nasal sprays, and better treatment options – advances don’t happen quickly even with regulatory interventions to speed approvals.
The most important challenge therefore is for the public health establishment and relevant governmental entities to regain the trust of the public so they can reintroduce NPIs or mandates in a newly thoughtful and targeted manner when a compelling reason exists. To accomplish this, a government rehabilitation program is called for now that the public has forcibly detoxed officials from overreach.
A logical start is one that relies more upon what science can contribute and less upon public officials. Infectious disease specialists have shown they can make qualitative predictions of the probability that an infected person will spread COVID-19 in very specific and narrowly defined environments and venues, based on airflow, density of people, time of exposure, the mechanics of viral shedding and dispersion, and so on. Detailed risk ratings could be published and promoted as an education campaign by the health care establishment in an effort to rebuild credibility.
Hopefully, this will improve efforts by responsible individuals to appropriately employ masking and at-home testing, as well as choosing what venues to avoid. Ideally, the risk ratings will then be internalized by enough of the public that narrowly targeted interventions that reflect the risks people now understand can be introduced and accepted to mitigate spikes in cases. It may only be a partial solution while awaiting pharmaceutical help, but it will be better than no attempt to slow the virus.
We cannot pretend that the end of COVID is in sight; the epidemiology and continuing evolution of the SARS-CoV-2 virus demand a thoughtful approach to public health policy that accepts the reality of history and the limitations of government action brought upon by its recent hubris and ineptness.
Andrew I. Fillat spent his career in technology venture capital and information technology companies. He is also the co-inventor of relational databases.