de Wolff: The End of Covid?
The high transmission of the omicron variant provides an opportunity to return to pre-pandemic conditions.
COVID-19 containment is over. In some parts of the world, it never really began, and in other parts, it has been finished for some time. Now, even longtime bastions of scrupulous public health measures, from the Ivy League to Israel, are turning away from their previous containment strategies. Faced with the seemingly unstoppable omicron variant, this is the only logical result. Now, the writing is on the wall: omicron will burn out soon, and it is time to decide how we will proceed.
The question at hand is not whether we should learn to live with COVID-19. You need only compare the situation at Dartmouth now with the situation one year ago to realize that we already have been doing so. At the end of winter term last year, an outbreak one quarter the size of our current weekly case counts locked down the College and drove hundreds of students to flee campus entirely. COVID-19 has evolved — and so must our attitudes toward the virus. Moving forward, we should continue to protect the vulnerable and immunocompromised members of our community while acting in a manner appropriate for the reduced risk that omicron now poses to the majority of us.
Already, the wave of omicron slamming the U.S. is burning out in the Northeast. Daily case counts are on the decline in New York, and they appear to have peaked in many other states such as Massachusetts, Delaware, Rhode Island and Connecticut. Hospitalizations are plateauing nationwide. It stands to reason that the rest of the nation will mirror the developments in the Northeast. The next chapter of the pandemic is almost upon us, and hopefully, it will be the epilogue.
Every day, more and more institutions and governments see the light, taking cautious steps toward a return to normal. Brown University has stopped using PCR tests, choosing to use rapid antigen tests instead, which they assert are a much better determinant of immediate infectiousness. Harvard University has ended its contact tracing protocols, transferring responsibility for notifying close contacts to positive students. In Israel, one of the most vaccinated countries on the planet, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett stated on Jan. 11 that “lockdowns don’t work” and that he wanted to keep the economy open. The United Kingdom has dropped its masking and COVID-19 passport requirements this week, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson explaining that the spread of omicron has peaked there and these measures are no longer necessary. Faced with the inevitability of omicron, the “Zero Covid” containment strategies such as lockdowns, COVID-19 passports and public masking requirements implemented by countries such as China, Australia and New Zealand are now thoroughly passé.
Despite this progress, it is unclear at what point people may consider the pandemic “finished.” Dartmouth, while lessening restrictions as time goes on, has still not provided a clear threshold for returning campus life to its former unmasked and unrestricted glory. They are not alone in this — White House press secretary Jen Psaki said this month that the Biden administration’s goal is “to defeat the virus.” She has not elaborated further on what such a victory would entail.
Once this wave is over, we can look to this past summer as a model for how to act. Some recommendations: Lift restrictions on masking and gatherings once more while continuing to monitor students through weekly testing. The almost nonexistent level of cases seen for much of the summer is unrealistic: given omicron’s virulence, COVID-19 is likely to maintain a low but steady presence for some time. But the proportion of students on campus who have contracted and recovered from omicron should guard against an outbreak reoccurring: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found recently that previous infection with COVID-19 appeared to provide stronger protection against infection with the delta variant than vaccination. The study also found that vaccines still offer the best protection against severe health impacts and death, and its data were collected before booster shots and the omicron variant became widespread. Still, in the event of an outbreak of a more virulent strain, prior infection will likely confer protection against most symptoms, rendering COVID-19 an annoying but less troublesome disease.
The two most common counterarguments against resuming normal life are the risk of contracting COVID-19 faced by the immunocompromised or otherwise vulnerable members of our communities and the risk that even healthy individuals who contract COVID-19 will suffer from long-term symptoms.” For the immunocompromised or vulnerable, the N95 masks provided by Dartmouth offer a good degree of protection against the virus for those who wish to minimize their risk of contraction. A regimen of booster shots also offers continued protection against the worst effects of the virus. Finally, if professors feel their health would be better protected by wearing a mask or asking others to do so, we should respect their judgment, and the College should allow professors to make those decisions for their classes.
The risk of “long COVID-19” refers to the continued presence of adverse health effects for a prolonged period following recovery from the virus. Fortunately, a study published in the medical journal The Lancet found that the chance of suffering from long COVID-19 is halved by having two vaccination doses. Furthermore, as time goes on, our understanding increases regarding how to treat this issue. Thus, the relatively low risk of long COVID-19 by itself does not justify the restrictions currently in place.
Over the past two years, we have gone from lockdowns to vaccine mandates to COVID-19 passports, all of which have, despite some successes in combating hospitalizations and deaths, failed to effectively stop the spread. Ironically, it is the spread of omicron itself that has presented us with this golden opportunity to stop careening from one haphazard public health measure to the next. While we should continue to take every reasonable precaution to protect all members of our community, the science points to a fast-approaching return to normal. Hopefully, the science is right and the worst of this pandemic is behind us.