Beyond COVID: When do we get back to normal?
March 1, 2022 | View PDF
A couple of years ago we had a normal life. Since then, we’ve had a pandemic. No matter what our life was like then, it is now more isolated, more lonely, more expensive, more fearful. When do we get back to normal? I have wishful thinking, but that is a far cry from an informed discussion. For that, we’ll have to turn to some public health folks who do not offer hard and fast recipes to make a determination, but do offer some interesting ways to think about the question.
Anne Zink, MD, is Chief Medical Officer for the Alaska Department of Health & Social Services. Here’s how she responded to the “back to normal?” question at a press conference, Feb. 3, 2022.
“COVID is going to be here with us for a very long time, if not forever, and it will probably be continuing to change. But our tools and our resources in 2022 are definitely different than our tools and resources in 2020. So, when we started, we didn’t know how this virus spread, we didn’t have PPE [personal protective equipment], we didn’t have a test for it, we didn’t have vaccines, we didn’t have treatments. And we are at a really different place now in 2022 than we were at that place.
“Most of the Alaska population has either been vaccinated or has previously had COVID-19. While both of those things can wane over time, they still provide protection. We have treatments like we never had before, we have more masking and tools. We are finding ways to be together, have our kids in school, gather and do the things that are important to us moving forward.
“I think we just need to use the tools and resources. What this means for an immunocompromised person going through chemo and restrictions of the things that they might want to do to protect themselves may be very different from a vaccinated seven-year-old in school who’s at low risk to start with.
“To say what this will look like for any one person is going to be really hard because there are as many different solutions as there are people in this state.”
Then the question was passed on to Joe McLaughlin, M.D., MPH, chief of the Section of Epidemiology for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.
“I think what we saw as Delta started going down is people were employing fewer of the layers of mitigation [such as masking and distancing] just naturally, because the cases were going down, and then they leveled off. And then once the omicron surge hit, we saw more people deciding to add on additional layers. And again, these are all personal choices that people are making.
“And I think as our omicron wave now starts to hopefully decline – it appears as though we’re moving in that direction – I hope that the trend continues in that downward trajectory. But as we start seeing a real steep decline in the omicron cases, I think people are going to naturally start to decrease their layers. And hopefully, you know, at some point in the near future, we can get to more of a steady state where SARS-CoV-2 [the virus that causes COVID-19] activity is much less rampant than it is right now.”
Finally, the discussion wouldn’t be complete without pinging the thoughts of Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the Chief Medical Advisor to the President. Here’s his response to the “back to normal” question at a presentation at the National Institutes of Health, Jan. 22, 2022.
“Well, first of all, the important point to make is that we are not there right now. Where we want to be is that sufficient control – and by “control” we mean not eradication, like we did with smallpox, that’s unreasonable; not necessarily elimination, like we’ve done with polio and with measles by mass vaccination campaigns – but a level of control that does not disrupt us in society, does not dominate our lives, and does not prevent us to do the things that we generally do under normal existence. We want to make it low enough so that it doesn’t disrupt our capability to function in society in a relatively normal way.
“We do that with other respiratory viruses. We know that we get RSV [a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms], particularly against vulnerable elderly and children. We get para-influenza, we get influenza. These are important. We try our best to contain them, but they don’t disrupt us with regard to challenging our hospital system, with regard to challenging the entire healthcare delivery system. That’s where we want to be and I believe that we will get there, hopefully sooner rather than later.”