HOW THE PANDEMIC NOW ENDS
Cases of COVID-19 are rising fast. Vaccine uptake has plateaued. The pandemic will be over one day—but the way there is different now.
In September 2020, just before COVID-19 began its wintry surge through the United States, I wrote that the country was trapped in a pandemic spiral, seemingly destined to repeat the same mistakes. But after vaccines arrived in midwinter, cases in the U.S. declined and, by summer’s edge, had reached their lowest levels since the pandemic’s start. Many Americans began to hope that the country had enough escape velocity to exit its cycle of missteps and sickness. And though experts looked anxiously to the fall, few predicted that the Delta variant would begin its ascent at the start of July. Now the fourth surge is under way and the U.S. is once again looping through the pandemic spiral. Arguably, it never stopped.
This new surge brings a jarring sense of déjà vu. America has fallen prey to many of the same self-destructive but alluring instincts that I identified last year. It went all in on one countermeasure—vaccines—and traded them off against masks and other protective measures. It succumbed to magical thinking by acting as if a variant that had ravaged India would spare a country where half the population still hadn’t been vaccinated. It stumbled into the normality trap, craving a return to the carefree days of 2019; in May, after the CDC ended indoor masking for vaccinated people, President Joe Biden gave a speech that felt like a declaration of victory. Three months later, cases and hospitalizations are rising, indoor masking is back, and schools and universities are opening uneasily—again. “It’s the eighth month of 2021, and I can’t believe we’re still having these conversations,” Jessica Malaty Rivera, an epidemiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital, told me.