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So, when exactly will all this be over, anyway?
I’ve been pondering that question a lot lately. Every time a public health official is asked about the pandemic, whether they are national or here in the state of Maine, the answer is vague. There never seem to be any specific metrics or thresholds, instead we are asked to simply wait and be vigilant. Someday we may — maybe — get back to normal.
The public has been largely tolerant of this ambiguity for the last year. Most of us have done what we were told, and begrudgingly accepted the rules and restrictions that have been placed upon us.
But I think that patience has an expiration date. In the mind of many, there actually is a clearly understood end to the pandemic: On-demand vaccinations for anyone who wants to have one. They have been willing to play along in the interest of being a good neighbor, but once the vaccines provide the country with true herd immunity, politicians and public health officials will be playing with fire if they try to keep restrictions in place.
And yet, from these officials we keep hearing that mass vaccination is not the end of the restrictions.
Dr. Anthony Fauci warned in November that even with mass vaccination, “for the foreseeable future, we will need to continue our mitigation measures, including wearing masks,” adding that those measures will last “for much of 2021.”
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer said last August that she thought physical distancing and mask wearing could potentially remain with us for two or even three years. “[A vaccine] is one important layer of protection,” she said. “But I would say that the public health measures that we have in place — the sort of personal, daily measures that we take — is going to have to continue.”
Brandon Dionne, assistant clinical professor of pharmacy and health systems sciences at Northeastern University said in October that “until we have reached a point where globally we can prevent transmission, there’s always a risk that it could flare back up.”
They are hardly alone. Here in Maine, schools are starting the process to plan for their next school year beginning in the fall, and state leaders are already saying that distancing and mask wearing will likely still be a requirement in the fall.
But is that rational?
This week, President Joe Biden pledged that the United States will have 600 million COVID-19 vaccine doses available by July. That will be enough vaccine to inoculate virtually everyone in the country, and as we already know, the COVID-19 vaccines have shown remarkable (and unprecedented) efficacy in protecting against the virus.
That means that by the time we return to school in the fall, the vaccine likely will be available to everyone. In Maine, 62 percent of adults who have not gotten the vaccine yet say they will definitely be getting it, while another 18.6 percent say that they “probably” will.
Why, then, would we not be returning to normal?
Perhaps you think that we wouldn’t because we need to keep guarding against transmission, to protect those for whom the shot doesn’t work, or those who can’t get the shot.
If that is your argument, fine. But I have to ask, “OK, so when is it over?”
Of course there are still people who might contract the virus, and sure, there is a small chance that once they do they may experience serious health consequences.
But what is our goal? Is our goal zero possibility of transmission? Is it rational to continue the mass disruption and shut down of our society, which has caused unquantifiable misery and suffering, in the vain hope of complete eradication?
What is necessary for us to achieve before we can feel like we can return our lives to normal? What are the metrics? Where are the benchmarks? What specifically has to happen, for it to all be over?
These shouldn’t be hard answers to give.
And yet we get no answers, because if they give clear markers to go by, once we arrive there, the public will ferociously demand an end to the restrictions, and a return to normal.
Living is not about exterminating risk, it is about managing it rationally and balancing that risk against the rewards that living a full life gives to you. It is irrational to continue subjecting our people to suffering simply because a small amount of risk remains. It is time to live again.
Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.