By Isaac Silverman
As I walk around New York City’s establishments, breathing in the fresh New York air without the barrier of a mask, it seems as though the COVID-19 pandemic is coming to an end. However, this is not the first time we were led to believe COVID-19 would end. In June 2021, as New York reached nearly 70% of adults vaccinated with at least one dose, former Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that many COVID-19 restrictions would be lifted, including social distancing, mask-wearing, and capacity restrictions. In fact, on June 15, 2021, fireworks were ordered to be set off in ten locations in New York, including the New York Harbor, to symbolize the “end” of the pandemic.
With the power of retrospect, it is evident to everyone now that the pandemic did not “end” that day, the Delta and Omicron variants, which followed in late 2021 and early 2022, led to the reinstatement of many COVID-19 restrictions. In addition, the discovery that the vaccine effects wear off and people would require booster shots to retain immunity from the virus made infection rates spike again once many people refused to boost. Fortunately, the Delta and Omicron variant spikes did not last long and seemed to dissipate as quickly as they had arrived.
Recently, many new drug treatments have been created to help treat COVID-19 infections. However, the likelihood of mass distribution is low as future funding for COVID-19 aid is currently delayed in Congress. This is highly troubling as less than a third of the U.S. population has received a booster shot, and daily vaccination rates have plummeted.
Although COVID-19 infection rates seem to have slowed down in the U.S., several Western European countries, including Germany, France, and Britain, have reported of a subvariant of Omicron called BA.2. This variant is 30-50% more contagious than the original strain. Furthermore, it is not isolated from the U.S., and several reports of it have been detected in major cities, such as New York.
On March 7, 2022, New York City Mayor Eric Adams lifted the vaccine mandate on restaurants, bars and theaters, which former Mayor Bill DeBlasio had installed on August 17 of the previous year. Mayor Adams said: “Two years ago, New York City was the epicenter of the pandemic, but thanks to New Yorkers getting vaccinated and getting boosted we have made tremendous progress.” Since the mandate was lifted, there has been an uptick in weekly average COVID-19 cases by approximately 40%. Although cases were expected to rise, the addition of the new Omicron BA.2 variant makes the rise in infection rates more concerning. The Omicron BA.2 variant’s doubling rate is only 7-8 days, which is half of the rate for the original strain of 14-16 days and faster than the Delta variant’s rate of 11 days. According to Kristian Andersen, a virologist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, there is likely to be a larger outbreak of BA.2 in the U.S. “sooner than what most people expect.” With that wave, I am personally worried that hospitalizations and deaths will rise once again.
On March 11, 2020, COVID-19 was classified as a “global pandemic” by the CDC. Recently, Margaret Harris, a spokesperson for the World Health Organization, told CNBC, “We’re going from the acute phase, the emergency phase, to a chronic phase where we’re going to have to look at long term sustained means of continuing to combat COVID-19.” Similarly, the CEO of Moderna, Stephan Bancel, was recently quoted as saying, “There’s a high probability we’re moving into an endemic setting.” In my opinion, it seems as though that is indeed the direction we are heading. With the decline of vaccination rates, the lifting of restrictions, and the occasional spread of new variants, it is not easy to imagine a world with COVID-19 completely eradicated.
So what does the future look like if COVID-19 never comes to a determined “end”? According to the dean of the Chicago Medical School at Rosalind Franklin University, Dr. Archana Chatterjee, “In order to keep it under control, we likely will need some form of periodic vaccination. Now, whether that’s annual or every two years or every five years, we don’t really know that yet. I think that that will emerge as we gather more data.” This is the same treatment method used for the influenza virus each year, which has proven to be successful year after year. Researchers will be able to discover changes in the virus strain and adjust a vaccine to defend against it. Although this is not the satisfying “end” of COVID-19 that I and many others hoped for, I find comfort in this possible solution.