COVID Is a Vibe

Illustration: Michael Houtz Photo: Getty Images

“Omicron is in retreat,” declared the January 19 headline of the New York TimesMorning Newsletter, by David Leonhardt, which reaches millions of inboxes each weekday. That same Wednesday, according to Our World in Data, 3,830 new deaths were reported in the country — not just the highest figure in the Omicron wave but, putting aside a one-day post-Thanksgiving reporting anomaly, the highest since January 2021. In the week that followed, the deaths continued: A few days later, according to the Times, the figure was 3,866. A few days after that, 3,895. These are higher figures than were ever recorded during the Delta surge, which killed more than 200,000 Americans July through December, and they rank among the ten deadliest days of the entire pandemic.

The thing is Leonhardt wasn’t wrong. The wave, while still brutally lethal, was in retreat by some very important metrics. Nationally, the seven-day average of new cases had peaked January 14 at just over 800,000. In places like New York, Boston, and D.C., peaks had come even earlier, and though other states are still climbing worryingly — Idaho, Montana, Alaska, Wyoming — new cases in the country as a whole have fallen dramatically. (Of course, the previous record was just 250,000, a reminder that, with all of these curves “peak” does not mean “end” but, at best, “midpoint.”) At the front end of the Omicron surge, those emphasizing the relative mildness of Omicron pointed to hospitalization figures, rather than cases, then watched as those, too, set pandemic records (often switching back to cases as a preferred metric when those began telling the more optimistic story). Hospitalizations are falling now as well, though slowly, and we now may be at or near the peak of deaths from this wave, too. Which among other things means it may be more helpful to shift not from cases to hospitalizations but from national data to local, which is where all of us — despite the impulse to reduce or extrapolate everything to national politics —actually live. For people in many of the country’s biggest cities, those case graphs are much more reassuring, with new cases at or below the level they were before the Omicron surge. The rest of the country will get there soon.

But however simply we want the pandemic to speak to us, invariably it speaks instead in tongues, inviting interpretation and contestation — some of it partisan, some of it principled, some of it self-interested. This has been the case for the past two years, when we often pretended complicated epidemiology presented self-evident policy and behavioral demands: as conservatives argued at the outset, the disease was not all that threatening to the young and middle aged, though, as liberals argued at the same time, the threat it represented to the old was so monumental it demanded a coordinated response; efforts to mitigate spread had a clear effect, but not such a large effect that they could bring surges quickly to heel or that the logic was always obvious to all; the vaccinated were very well protected against Delta, and yet there were a nontrivial amount of breakthrough hospitalizations and deaths, mostly among the very old; and nationwide, despite widespread vaccination, especially among the elderly, thousands were dying each day at rates much higher than observed in Europe, producing death totals that would’ve horrified us earlier in the pandemic, and indeed did, but which had already become more like slightly irritating background noise to those who felt personally safe with their shots.

But the Rorschach features of the pandemic have never been quite so explicit as now, perhaps because so many on the left have, with a mix of exhaustion and growing frustration, moved from pandemic vigilance and “follow the science” to something closer to the position Derek Thompson recently described as “vaxxed and done.” Bari Weiss put it even more pointedly to Bill Maher: “I’m done with COVID.”

But what does done mean, exactly? And what was she done with? As the writer Alex Pareene recently argued, we are not in lockdown anywhere in this country and haven’t been for almost a year and a half. Few Americans are working from home full time, even during Omicron, and even fewer will be doing so in the coming months. Schools have had a bumpy few weeks this January, but there is no one anywhere in the country proposing they close down in an indefinite and preemptive way. In blue and bluish places, there are some mask requirements, and you may get some dirty looks at the supermarket if you stroll the produce aisle naked-faced. We are now being asked to wear a different kind of mask, and some social-distancing measures have come to seem a bit ridiculous, too: those dots on the floor in the bank line, the parents arranged around soccer games standing six feet apart in open air. But, really, how intrusive is all that? The restaurants and bars are open, as are concerts and college basketball games. In some places, you have to show a vaccine card; in a few, you may have to get your nose swabbed. But airline traffic is on track to returning to its pre-pandemic level, and, judging by the crudest metrics at least, the economy is, overall, booming.

In the near future, these limited measures may further relax, and at least some of the pandemic surveillance apparatus may be withdrawn. But, for the moment, it is not the “vaxed and done” but the ER docs who are really strained. And to the extent that boosted Americans living among other boosted Americans feel put-upon by the pandemic, it is not because public-health policies restrict any of us in any profound way but because the disease continues to circulate and because that fact of continued spread seems to burden us psychologically in ways we would prefer to pin on others: the unvaccinated and unmasked, principals and teachers unions, presidents and former presidents. Thanks to vaccine hesitancy and resistance and low uptake of boosters even among the double-vaxed, in the pandemic’s second year the U.S. actually did worse — in the absolute number of deaths, but also relatively speaking, compared to its peers in Europe — than it did in its first year. But even across the Atlantic, where Omicron hospitalization rates and deaths are well below ours, they aren’t done with it. They aren’t in lockdowns like they were in 2020 — when restrictions were policed less by the honor system, as they were largely here, than by the actual police — but they are arguing about how to respond to case spread perhaps as vociferously as we are. (A pandemic party scandal may actually take down the British prime minister, for instance.)

In the U.S., it has become a comforting Omicron pastime for the vaccinated to pass around charts showing just how worse the disease continues to be for the unvaccinated and how unthreatening it is for the vast majority of those with two or three shots already. The charts are indeed reassuring: Data by the CDC does suggest an almost inconceivably large gap between the pandemic faced by those who have had their shots and those who have not, like an 16-fold divergence for all vaccinated adults and a 52-fold divergence for boosted seniors.

There is, though, more to a pandemic than the matter of individual risk faced by those behaving most responsibly. And at the social level vaccination rates don’t seem to tell the whole story, even in places where the numbers are, all things considered, quite good. New York state, for instance, boasts a comparable population-wide vaccination rate to the United Kingdom as a whole, and is just a few ticks below their coverage of seniors; but our death rate, during Omicron, has been almost three times as high. If you are so inclined, you can look at the same batch of recent data that suggests, to some, the retreat of Omicron and tell a contrary, disheartening story: More Americans have already died from COVID this month than died in battle in the Vietnam War. At no point over the past two years has the seven-day average of deaths fallen below 200, which means that on the absolute very best day of the pandemic, based on this metric — July 12, 2021 — the country was still on an annualized pace of 73,000 deaths from COVID. Right now, the annualized pace is more than 900,000. That number will surely fall in the near future, but between now and then, the country seems likely to be suspended in a weirder, uncertain-vibes phase with different metrics pointing in different directions and giving a pick-and-choose quality to COVID data, just contradictory enough to furnish plausible justifications for a whole range of perspectives about the shape of what’s to come.

What happens from there is not yet clear, in part because we don’t yet know whether the new Omicron subvariant, BA.2, will change much about the shape of this wave. In all likelihood, Omicron cases will continue to fall, and along with them hospitalizations and deaths. In South Africa, cases declined as rapidly as they had first shot up, but the pattern has not been the same everywhere else; in the U.K., whose early experience with Omicron comforted many Americans, cases have plateaued and there are noticeable rises in two age cohorts: school-age children and the middle-aged adults who could be their parents. In parts of the U.S., progress downward has stuttered and plateaued, as well. And while early optimism about the new variant suggested the possibility that it could spread so prolifically it would reach, infect, and effectively inoculate the unvaccinated, in the U.K., a study found more than two-thirds of Omicron cases appear to be reinfections, meaning that many more of them are working like boosters, which strengthen existing immunity, than like first shots, which expand the pool of the well protected. One epidemiologist who estimated at the end of October that 86.2 percent of Americans had been exposed to the virus recently predicted that the Omicron wave would probably bump that figure up only to 90 or 95 percent. That’s not a much bigger immunity wall than we started this surge with.

The estimate may be off, of course, and Omicron may ultimately give us more than a small 5% boost. But — in part because of vaccine hesitancy, in part because the vaccines are less effective against transmission than we might’ve hoped, and in part because the disease itself has already evolved an impressive capacity for immune evasion — we have long since moved past the onetime dream of real herd immunity, where the disease would actually disappear. Instead, the closest thing we have to an endgame is now “endemicity” — which is to say ongoing though probably cyclical spread, punctuated by some amount of regular death well above what might have previously terrified us. And we’ll normalize that as we normalize everything—to judge by how we’ve responded to each lull so far, probably without doing much in terms of policy (new hospitals, guaranteed testing capacity and widespread therapeutics) to actually prepare and adapt when we have the time.

“The end of the pandemic will not be televised,” the British Medical Journal declared in a December 2021 paper that found that “respiratory pandemics of the past century show that endings are not clear cut, and that pandemic closure is better understood as occurring with the resumption of social life, not the achievement of specific epidemiological targets.” The 1918 flu perhaps aside, there was no obvious moment in the mortality curve of any recent pandemic where the conclusion suddenly announced itself, the authors found, suggesting that, for this pandemic, reaching “the end” may be less a matter of when the data turns incontrovertibly positive than when finally, if not necessarily rationally, the vibes go sunny-side up. That could be quite soon.

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COVID Is a Vibe