Almost a year after it greatly changed life in Kentucky and the rest of the United States, the pandemic is waning, and vaccinations are proceeding and accelerating. However, we still face the threat of more contagious strains of the novel coronavirus, and a chance that too much relaxation will allow the virus to keep spreading. People want to know what the future holds, but experts are cautious about making specific predictions.
"I think we're going to have a significant degree of normality . . . as we approach the fall and winter," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday. He declined to define that further, but said masks might still be a good idea in certain places and situations for another year.
Atul Gawande has much the same take. He is a surgeon in Boston and public-health leader who writes about public health for The New Yorker magazine and has written four books. He did a short interview with New Yorker Editor David Remnick, part of which follows.
Remnick: The last time we spoke, it was December, and you told me that you thought we might return to normal sometime this summer. Given the new information about mutations and the rate of vaccination, where does your answer stand now?
Gawande: So it has gotten more complicated. I didn’t imagine we would have strains that would potentially evade the vaccines. Also, we have the complexity that the trials in kids are not going to come out with results to indicate how you can vaccinate the population under eighteen. That won’t be done until the end of summer. The trials in ages six and up are only beginning now. So that’s a big part of the population that will still potentially be affected by covid. So where will we be? My suspicion is that we’re going to be in a world by the end of summer where we don’t have hospitalizations and don’t have deaths in anything like the numbers we’ve had. We will have it down below flu-level numbers. And once we’re below flu-level numbers, the country is going to want to throw the masks away.
And that’s a mistake? Well, I think it’s going to be a real debate, because if our goal was to get to zero cases, then we aren’t going to get there. So this is going to be a political debate. The public-health answer isn’t always just get to zero. We need to be able to get back to our lives, and we’re going to have a real debate, even among public-health people, about where to draw that line. I compare it to when we decided we were going to move the speed limit back up from fifty-five miles an hour to sixty-five miles an hour, knowing that was going to mean thousands of deaths a year. It continues to be debated. But we decided this was where we drew the line, and it was a political decision as much as a public-health one.
When will I be able to do things like go to the movies, to Yankee Stadium, take a flight without a mask, and not be thinking about this all the time?
This is what makes it hard. I think that the most likely thing is that covid gets beaten down to become an endemic, chronic, flu-like illness that circulates, that we will have developed some antiviral treatments as well, that many people continue to wear masks. I think we will also have discovered that wearing the mask stops the flu, which it did this last year, and any remaining covid in circulation. And we’re going to have some changes in norms, where there are people who decide, You know what, it’s perfectly fine to wear the mask when I travel. By the fall, it will feel much more like normal.