Lack of trust is fueling the current COVID-19 surge
The nation is experiencing a COVID-19 tsunami. Yet, people’s behavior suggests that no one is noticing. Are the surge and the behavior related?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides weekly updates on every county’s COVID-19 status. As of July 14, over 75 percent of counties are at the medium or high levels. Given how these levels are defined, this means that COVID-19 hospital admissions in these counties are sufficient to impact hospital bed availability.
With more people using at-home tests, case counts have become a meaningless measure for assessing COVID-19 community risk, since positive test results rarely get reported to public health agencies. Hospitalizations, both new COVID-19 admissions and current occupancy, provide the most informative risk metrics.
New COVID-19 hospital admissions continue to increase, with the BA.5 omicron subvariant gaining a foothold in the population and its contagiousness driving widespread infection spread.
The majority of Americans appear unfazed by the current risk environment.
Restaurants and entertainment venues continue to enjoy robust activity and the travel industry is enjoying a returning vibrance. Air travel continues to be robust, as measured by the daily number of people the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) are screening at airport security checkpoints, which has consistently been over 2 million travelers since early June. Given that seat capacity is just below those levels available in 2019, air travel has essentially returned to pre-pandemic levels.
In the spring of 2021, one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, people were asking what the new normal would look like. We can now answer this question.
The new normal is an ongoing stream of new variants and subvariants, each with their own set of characteristics and risks. The ebb and flow of infections will continue. The much hoped for environment that prior infections would be protective has not panned out. The vaccines, including boosters, have continued to provide a fortress of protection against severe disease, albeit weakening over time. Treatments like Paxlovid are invaluable despite limitations such as drug interactions.
The good news so far is that deaths have not surged in lockstep with infections, though at around 300 per day, they are not negligible. The not-so-good news is that hospitalizations continue to climb, which may lead to more deaths in the coming weeks.
Is this new normal acceptable? Will the public health environment continue to erode, or will it heal with time?
The CDC has done a great disservice to the nation. It has placed a tremendous burden on every person to assess what they should do to protect themselves, and most importantly, protect our society’s well-being. Opaque guidance on social distancing, masking and ventilation has been lost in the cacophony of “freedom to choose” jubilation and an insensitivity spawned from a stream of worst-case warnings that have been communicated in the past.
This lack of trust in the CDC means that the public is no longer listening. The recent White House briefing, which contained useful information and advice, fell on deaf ears.
Many hoped, or wished, that after over two years of restrictions and constraints, the pandemic would be in the rearview mirror. We can keep our heads in the sand and believe that it has, but the data says otherwise.
Does that mean that people have to lock down again and return to a state of hibernation? Definitely not. That did not work very well, as the implemented social disruptions led to non-COVID-19 excess deaths that were unexpected and unpredictable.
What our nation needs is a regained trust in the CDC and the data that can guide us through the BA.5 surge and other new variants that are likely to emerge in the future. The seeds of trust can be found in what is messaged and how it is messaged.
Blanket mask mandates are ineffective. Credible, targeted masking guidance gives people more control over their situation. Ongoing transparent communication on the state of the nation is needed. Worst-case scenarios have been ineffective and even harmful, as people tune out the message, no matter how informative its substance.
Our new normal need not be as bleak as it appears. It can be changed, with a willingness for people to recognize where we are, and a willingness to take actions that are in everyone’s best interest, even their own.
Without trust, our new normal will continue to on its current trajectory that serves no one’s interests.
Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a professor in computer science and the Carle Illinois College of Medicine at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. A data scientist, he applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based decision-making to evaluate and inform public policy.