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Editorial: We may already be living in the ‘new normal’

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As the country continues to deal with elevated COVID case counts while pushing for more vaccinations among the population, I’ve been reflecting lately on what the near future may hold.

DBT Editor Jacob Owens

In April 2020, as the federal government began to unveil its plans to attack the worsening health crisis, one of the drumbeat messages that we heard was the need to “flatten the curve,” gaining control of the virus’s spread through social distancing and masking while awaiting the arrival of vaccines that were touted as a panacea.

I listened to countless press briefings last spring and summer by White House and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials and attended and questioned Gov. John Carney and state officials for weeks on end about the local response effort. In all of that time, I can’t recall hearing the message that COVID is here to stay.

Maybe I missed it or maybe there was a concern that such messaging would cause apathy to preventative efforts in the public. Regardless, the impression I was left with was that if we could just make it to 2021, our private-sector partners could supply the drugs needed to end our national nightmare.

Well, we’re more than three quarters of the way through 2021 and the nightmare roller coaster is heading back up another hill.

I recently spoke with Jennifer Horney, the founding director of the University of Delaware’s epidemiology program, about what we should expect about COVID moving forward. Always informative and straightforward, she didn’t exactly leave me feeling rosy about the future.

While President Joe Biden has been pushing to increase the nation’s immunization level to about 80%, a level that would provide a greater degree of herd immunity protecting the unvaccinated, Horney noted that most countries around the world have vaccination levels of about 5% as their stock of vaccines is very low.

Jennifer Horney, Ph.D. | PHOTO COURTESY OF UD

“In a globally connected world, we can have 80% in the U.S. but that doesn’t protect us from the virus,” she noted.

With the slow dissemination effort overseas, there is a strong likelihood that we will soon be talking about endemic COVID-19 rather than a pandemic. The difference being that rather than seeing an explosive growth of cases, we’ll see persistent, but smaller, clusters of cases in regions around the world.

“I don’t think we’re going to get to a point anytime soon where we say there’s been an eradication of COVID,” Horney said. “Nor should that necessarily be the goal.”

The epidemiologist noted that with hundreds of other viruses around the world zoonotically similar to COVID-19, putting too much emphasis on pursuing one variant or virus could result in a new threat cropping up.

Looking back to history shows that the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 took about three years to fade out in time due to preventative measures, like masking and social distancing, as well as the build up of natural immunity. An estimated 33% of the world’s population contracted that virus, with upward of 50 million deaths ascribed to it.

In comparison, less than 3% of the world’s population today is estimated to have contracted COVID-19 and about 4.55 million have died. Unlike a century ago though, we do have several vaccines to fight the virus, and as of Sept. 30 about 34% of the world’s population is reportedly considered fully vaccinated. Billions more need to be inoculated today though, presenting a much larger challenge than the early 20th century when global travel was also virtually impossible.

Another example that we would do well to keep in mind is polio. Long considered a crowning achievement in vaccine development, Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was released to the American public in 1955. Prior to the vaccine, about 15,000 children were paralyzed annually in the 1950s due to the terrorizing virus.

Despite the advent of the “miracle vaccine” and a rush by most families to get children vaccinated, polio wasn’t deemed to be eradicated in the U.S. until 1979 – nearly 25 years after a vaccine was introduced. Hundreds down to tens of polio cases in children continued through the 1960s and ‘70s.

I don’t provide this perspective to bring a sense of pessimism to our current endeavor, but the reality is that COVID is something we will likely learn to live with for a number of years onward. The risk to us will likely decrease as vaccinations increase, viral spread slows, and preventative measures become more ingrained in our society.

We should get used to the idea that booster shots, along with our annual flu shots, may be here to stay for the foreseeable future though.

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