The COVID-19 endgame may be here

After a nearly two-year obsession with the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans seem to be ready to move on from social distancing mandates. Their appetites for lockdowns and the like are low, and some politicians are paying attention — only a few are issuing new mandates in the face of increased viral transmission and the new dominant omicron variant. This may signal the endgame for the government’s response to COVID-19. But why did it take so long to get here?

If public officials gradually lift mandates as the numbers of infections decline and stay low, this makes perfect sense. Sadly, that is not the case: COVID-19 is just as prevalent as it ever was, and in some areas of the country, even more so. Yes, people can boost their protection with vaccines, but vaccines by themselves do not appear capable of stopping COVID-19 from threatening health care capacity, the original rationale provided for social distancing mandates.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen WhitmerGretchen WhitmerWhitmer releases plan to make Michigan carbon neutral by 2050 Whitmer leading possible GOP challengers in Michigan governor race: poll Whitmer isolating after husband's positive COVID-19 test MORE (D) provides a clear example of how the approach to COVID-19 has changed. Given the extraordinary measures she took in 2020 to stop the spread of this coronavirus, an explanation is needed for why she refuses to do likewise now. Last year, Whitmer took it upon herself to decide which outdoor activities were safe enough for the public to engage in. Golf courses, for example, were deemed safe for walking but not for playing golf — a distinction that Mark Twain and many others would reject.

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With Michigan currently facing double-digit test positivity rates, filled hospitals and sustained growth in COVID-19 deaths, Whitmer has switched tactics. She apparently believes the proper role for the state now is to simply issue advisories and leave the decisions about social distancing to local governments and private individuals. Many other governors — including Colorado’s Jared Polis (D), Pennsylvania’s Tom Wolf (D) and Wisconsin’s Tony Evers (D) — have joined Whitmer in not imposing new restrictions during the latest wave.

Leaving the pandemic mitigation effort to local authorities and individuals is a marked departure from the approach of 2020, but it is not an ill-conceived concept. In fact, it is what most government-produced pandemic plans recommended before COVID-19. Phillip Magness and Peter Earle recently documented this in an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal. Mass quarantines, forced isolation and most of the other strategies that governments used in 2020 were not endorsed by experts, including the World Health Organization.    

Why was this light-touch approach eschewed last year, especially when the COVID-19 numbers were considerably lower than they are now? In summer 2020, for example, gyms, indoor bars, movie theaters and a host of other businesses that government officials deemed “nonessential” were forced to remain closed in many states. Mask mandates — some enforced with criminal penalties — were imposed and even expanded. There are far more positive tests and hospitalizations now than most states were dealing with then, but the severe measures have not returned.

When asked about this change in strategy, many health officials and politicians point to vaccines, claiming they make all the difference. But it’s clear that although the vaccines can decrease the chance of severe illness, they do not prevent the transmission of the virus. Furthermore, their effectiveness wanes over time; hence, the need for boosters. So, while vaccines certainly help, they may not be the game-changers we all hoped they’d be.

So, what changed? One factor that may be influencing public officials is demonstrated by what recently happened at Cornell University. The school has vaccine and mask mandates for everyone on campus — with 97 percent fully vaccinated. And yet the college announced it was closing because of too many COVID-19 cases. If outbreaks cannot be prevented in such an environment, it is unlikely that they can be prevented among the general public.

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Even politicians who were big lockdown proponents may be realizing that this virus simply can’t be stopped. Officials increasingly are treating COVID-19 like a severe weather event: They don’t try to stop it, but they help the public prepare for and minimize its damage — and then recover when the emergency wanes.

This could have been the approach with COVID-19 all along. Public officials might have focused from the start on providing people with reliable information they could use to protect themselves, based on their circumstances, needs and risk preferences. Governments could have been dispassionate observers, helping people make informed decisions for themselves. This certainly would have reduced some of the controversy and outrage that the unprecedented lockdown measures produced. 

With such an approach, trust in public health institutions may have been maintained or even grown, and we might have avoided a culture war over mask mandates and vaccines. Helping the public navigate risks with unbiased and comprehensive information is how trust is built. Unfortunately, the browbeating and mandating produced the opposite. 

Now, politicians have a chance to win back some respect with a new approach that trusts individuals to act responsibly, whatever occurs next with COVID-19.  

Michael Van Beek is director of research at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Mich.