COVID-19 isn’t gone, of course. The coronavirus, the current novel one and its variants as well as other such viruses, will never be gone, and every public health expert knows that.
And the pandemic is still raging in other parts of the world, especially in India.
But in the United States, the “emergency’ is over. The epidemic in America is like a poisoned rat, limping, staggering, crawling, and gasping its last breaths. The poison is the vaccine now jabbed into the arms of most adults.
Pandemic, thou art slain.
We can say that without diminishing in any way the lethality of the past year, and without having to debate the value of the interventions and sacrifices of the last 14 months.
This was a crisis. It was a plague. Now, in the U.S., it’s just a virus.
In countries such as the U.S., the United Kingdom, and Israel, the coronavirus is now one of countless risks and threats to human health. And like all other risks, prudence dictates we mitigate it. But reasonable humans do not demand that risks be reduced to zero at any cost.
Driving, swimming, hiking, drinking, eating, making love, raising children — all of these things are risky. Living is a risk. For the past 14 months, we’ve been asked and ordered to give up a lot of living in order to save lives. It’s time to start living again.
This will not be easy for many. Public health officials won’t want their moment to end. Mayors and county executives won’t want to give up their emergency powers. The media will hate to lose an ever-present threat with which to scare the public daily.
And many people, scarred and altered by 14 months of lockdowns, the half-million deaths, and the constant reminders of invisible germs, will have trouble giving up their masks or reentering the world.
Some will choose to stay quarantined or even keep wearing masks outdoors. That’s sad, but it’s their right. Just as it is ours to acknowledge the facts and readjust our routine accordingly.
While the media greeted the May 13 loosening of mask guidance as an all-nearly-clear declaration from the White House, it is up to neither the media nor the government to declare normalcy. The remaining restrictions — on the unvaccinated, especially on children — also need to be ended whether Joe Biden or Anthony Fauci is ready or not.
What does it mean, then, to accept that the emergency is over?
All schools should open five days a week. Workers should return to the office. All of us should toss our masks in the trash.
Churches and bars should be filled to whatever the fire marshal will allow, so that we can pray, sing, and revel as before.
This is already what life is like in much of the country. If you live in Texas or Florida or Missouri, where infection rates are low and hospitalizations are falling while masks are rare and everything’s open, you might say the pandemic is already over. You’d be right.
Eradicating the coronavirus can’t be the goal. We didn’t eradicate the flu after the flu pandemic of 1919. Even polio still exists. Smallpox may be the only human disease we’ve ever stamped out.
COVID isn’t gone, but infections, hospitalizations, and deaths are way down from the January peak. The numbers have consistently fallen since a spring bump peaked in mid-April.
The seven-day moving average of new cases dropped below 40,000 on May 10, representing an 84% drop from the January peak of 250,000 a day, and a 21% drop in just a week. The average case count has fallen every single day since April 14, when the early spring mini-surge peaked just below 73,000 cases. The fewer than 35,000 cases on May 12 matched the lowest case counts since testing hit full stride last summer.
Deaths have followed the same trajectory, lagging slightly. The seven days leading up to May 13 saw the fewest COVID deaths of any week since July 10. And this wasn’t a blip. The seven-day moving average of deaths fell almost every day since late January until reaching 630 a day on May 13.
That’s fewer than half as many as die daily from either heart disease or cancer. Accidents kill 475 people on an average day. Before COVID-19, chronic respiratory disease was killing 430 per day.
We all take steps to mitigate traffic deaths, accidental poisonings, and deadly falls, but we don’t impose every possible safeguard. We don’t set 5 mph speed limits, ban bleach and bourbon, or institute ladder control. At some point, a killer becomes one of many killers rather than an all-consuming existential enemy. The question is when. The coronavirus pandemic has reached that point.
Government health officials — federal, state, and local — will lecture us that the pandemic isn’t over. Their faithful and uncritical media stenographers will repeat it. So, we need a clear understanding of how to gauge progress.
Amid all these falling numbers, where’s the actual finish line?
“When can we declare the pandemic over?” New York Times healthcare columnist Aaron Carroll asked in an April 27 column. “Not yet, of course. Cases are stalled or rising in many areas. Virus variants are becoming more prevalent. While many people are vaccinated, many more are not. Hospitalizations and deaths are still occurring, especially in those groups not yet fully immunized.”
Since then, things have changed, of course. Cases are falling almost everywhere in the U.S., and the variants haven’t been able to reverse that. More U.S. adults are vaccinated than are not. At the time of writing, hospitalizations and deaths were at or near 10-month lows.
There’s never been just one good yardstick for measuring the spread and threat of the virus. But a few numbers in particular seem like good metrics.
In an editorial in March, the Washington Examiner suggested three benchmarks: meeting vaccine demand, a reproductive rate consistently below 1 (meaning the virus is steadily disappearing), and excess deaths falling to zero.
Now in mid-May, we’ve met these three metrics, it appears. In fact, every coronavirus number in the U.S. is good and getting better.
COVID really was the worst plague of our lifetime. Nobody should minimize its lethality. The morbid math is captured in the number known as “excess deaths,” which, roughly, are deaths exceeding about 3% above the average for a given calendar week.
Beginning in late March 2020, all-cause mortality in the U.S. was well above average every single week. The last week of 2020 saw almost 50% more deaths than the average for the final week of a year.
Now, it appears that excess deaths may be at zero. Even though the coronavirus is still floating around the air and still taking lives, people aren’t dying at a more rapid clip than normal. I say “appears” because death numbers trickle into the CDC slowly. “This delay can range from 1 week to 8 weeks or more,” the agency’s website explains.
The week ending March 13, 2021, more than eight weeks ago, saw only slightly more deaths than average, according to CDC estimates as of press time, and officially was not in excess-death territory. Every subsequent week has had fewer deaths, and most look likely to come in below that excess threshold when the counting is done.
It’s hard to argue we are in a deadly pandemic if we aren’t dying at above-average rates.
Just as Americans are not reproducing enough to replace themselves, the coronavirus is not at “replacement level” either. When the reproduction number for a virus is below 1, that means the average person infected in turn infects fewer than one additional person. Such a virus will steadily die off.
The coronavirus’s reproduction number has been below 1 since early April, and it’s not rising. As of May 12, the estimated reproduction number nationwide was 0.91, which means that cases would drop every day by measurable amounts.
But even that is too rosy a picture for the virus’s future, because every day, millions more people become immune thanks to vaccinations.
Throughout the pandemic, many measures helped protect individuals. Schools moved classes outside and upgraded their ventilation. Churches limited attendance. Couples downsized weddings. Airlines required masks for flight attendants and passengers.
These steps were great ways to protect the vulnerable, such as the elderly or those with other lung issues or obesity, and they helped slow the spread of the virus. (Remember “flatten the curve”?) But closures, distancing, and masks were never going to stamp out the pandemic. It takes vaccines to do that.
Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson, under President Donald Trump’s Operation Warp Speed, produced highly effective vaccines that provide very strong immunity within 10 to 14 days after a full dose. Vaccinations protect not only the vaccinated, but also the unvaccinated: A vaccinated person, being far less likely to get the virus, is thus far less likely to infect his or her kids or colleagues or roommates. As a result, the virus is now running into more dead ends, which is why this spring’s collapse in infection rates is not like the temporary downturns last year. It’s also why the February-March rebound was small and short-lived.
As of May, cities and states are begging people to vaccinate. Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser offered free beer. In New York, you could get free tickets to a baseball game if you got the shot on your way into the stadium. In Buffalo, the beer-and-a-shot experience brought out hundreds of folks who couldn’t bother to be vaccinated beforehand.
In other words, vaccine demand has been met. Any adult who wants a vaccine has had an opportunity to get one by now. In most places, this was true by the end of April.
With very few exceptions, if you are an unvaccinated adult, you have chosen to be unvaccinated.
The justification for lockdowns evaporates in this environment.
The government telling a grandmother her Sunday family dinner is illegal, barring friends from gathering at a restaurant that would host them, or limiting the ability of people to worship together is a terrifying infringement on basic freedoms that cannot be justified in the name of protecting the adults who are willingly gathering. They are justified because of externalized risks: The folks gathering could catch the virus and then spread it to others who chose not to gather.
But if everyone with any significant risk of still catching the coronavirus has chosen to bear that risk by not getting vaccinated, then our lockdowns are curbing the freedom of some to protect others who have chosen not to protect themselves. That’s not the way a free people behaves.
Open America vs. Closed America
The final argument that the pandemic is over is that just as the public largely locked down before being mandated to do so, the public in much of the country is leading the way back out.
Risk aversion stopped people from going to restaurants and bars well before the states closed those establishments. And now, faces are unmasked in churches across most of Florida and Texas. When you bump into your neighbor at the hardware store on the outskirts of Austin, neither of you are wearing a mask, and you probably shake hands. Bars and restaurants are busy. School is open, and high school sports are in session.
This may seem foreign (even scary!) to those in our media and government bubbles of New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., where through publication of this article, masks were still required on sidewalks, dancing was forbidden, and restaurants and bars were still allowed to reach only some fraction of capacity. Many school districts in and around major cities are not fully open, yet, with nearly half of the students still learning remotely in some places.
In these masked-up, locked-down places, it still feels like life amid a pandemic. But unlike last spring or winter, cases aren’t increasing and hospitals aren’t worried about being overrun.
In the D.C. region, where outdoor masking is still normal, Little Leaguers have to wear masks in the outfield, and Starbucks won’t allow you to sit down indoors, only about 40 people per million test positive every day, and local governments report fewer than 10 deaths per day across the whole region.
Those low numbers are hidden from the average person’s eye, though. All the closures, social-distancing signs, and masks, on the other hand, are very visible. Like an infected person who feels the inflammation and the immune reaction to a virus, Big City Americans are still feeling the reaction to COVID — and so many of them can’t believe that they aren’t also surrounded by the virus.
But in the open parts of the country, where it feels post-pandemic, none of this post-pandemic behavior is doing what the lockdowners warned.
In March, President Joe Biden called Republican officials in Florida and Texas “Neanderthals” for lifting their mask mandates. Former congressman Beto O’Rourke said allowing Texans to unmask was a “death warrant” for them. Daily case counts in Texas have fallen by more than two-thirds since that “death warrant” comment — a fall twice as fast as the one experienced by the rest of the country.
Considering these Florida and Texas numbers, and all of the numbers above — especially the lack of excess deaths, the below-replacement reproduction number, and the meeting of vaccination demand — you have to conclude that people only insist we are still in a pandemic because that’s how they feel.
How to get over a pandemic
Which raises the question: How do we reverse the learned behavior of fear, especially if it’s still reinforced by some elites? If you look at the lockdowners — the federal and local health authorities and the few remaining media cheerleaders — you can see a fear in their eyes right now.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky lost her cool before the Senate Health Committee when GOP Sen. Susan Collins questioned her on the onerous rules on summer camps that require children to wear masks all day, every day, outdoors, for instance. Walensky fired back: “We now have 38,000 new infections on average per day. Last May 11, it was 24,000, and we sent a lot of kids home, and camps were closed.”
One need not be a statistician or epidemiologist to see the number games Walensky is playing there. Last May 11, those 24,000 infections were from fewer than 400,000 tests. This May 11’s 38,000 cases are from about 1 million tests. And this year, most U.S. adults are vaccinated, meaning they are at extremely low risk even if children catch it, and all children 12 and over will be able to get a shot by summer vacation anyway. Yet Walensky suggested that the current environment is more dangerous than last year’s.
That’s absurd, and its implication is clear: No matter how good things get, the CDC won’t admit anything is safe as long as the politics dictate it declare everything dangerous. Maybe the CDC just wants to preserve power. Maybe the Biden administration is afraid of making life difficult for the teachers unions that are still keeping schools closed. Maybe, at best, Joe Biden simply wants a great, dramatic July 4 reopening announcement for which he can take credit.
Nobody should be shocked that CDC guidance might be ungrounded in science. This same CDC advised against masks last year but still refuses to admit that outdoor masks are unnecessary and didn’t admit that masking vaccinated people was pointless. The agency’s guidance on outdoor spread is that “less than 10%” of all cases were contracted outdoors, while it knows that the real number is far less than 1%.
Half of America has been walking down sidewalks, playing baseball, waiting for their kids in the school parking lot wearing a mask that provides nobody any protection, and the CDC found it important to keep that practice going.
The Biden administration’s insistence until May 13 that fully vaccinated officials wear masks showed that the White House was unwilling to loosen restrictions that serve no purpose. And it was unwilling to learn a lesson.
But we all need to learn many lessons from these last 14 months: Teachers unions are not on the side of school kids; employees should stay home when feeling sick; new viruses don’t always behave like old viruses; federal approval of testing technology needs to be faster.
The most important lesson is that public health authorities can no more be trusted with great power than anyone else.
While lockdowners will retort that masks are no big deal, or scream “500,000 dead!” to belittle the social, economic, and moral costs of the lockdowns, the biggest danger we face right now is allowing restrictions to go on any longer than needed.
States, cities, counties, and the CDC are using emergency powers to restrict our freedom. At times throughout the past year, there may have been serious gains from these government actions. At least, the government closures seemed in line with the mood of much of the country.
But if a government keeps its emergency powers indefinitely, it becomes a tyranny. Free people cannot allow these powers to outlive the emergency. We also cannot wait on the coronavirus to go away. We certainly cannot wait on the CDC to declare the emergency over.
Americans are self-governing people. It’s up to us — not Biden, Walensky, or Fauci — to step outside, toss our masks in the trash, and declare this whole thing over.