The battle with COVID-19 seemed to round a corner last spring. Multiple vaccines were authorized for emergency use, which many Americans eagerly received when eligible. Then, as COVID infection rates began dropping, many restrictions were lifted.
In mid-May, the CDC announced that fully vaccinated people need not wear masks in most situations. After a year of masking up, it felt odd not to wear one — for about 10 minutes.
Life will never be as it was before the pandemic. Some things we’ll miss, while others are best left in the annals of history. That’s the nature of change. But I was mistaken in thinking that the world was settling into a post-pandemic new normal.
In early summer, the delta variant swept across the globe, and it didn’t skip the United States. By late July, as families prepared to send students back to school, COVID outbreaks once again began to rise.
Today, COVID infection and hospitalization rates in much of the nation are now as high as they were last December. Masks are back, as they should be.
When K-12 schools in Summit County opened this fall, only one district, Akron Public Schools, had a mask mandate for everyone in the buildings. That number quickly rose to 11 of the county’s 17 districts after exposure-caused quarantines kept many staff members and students at home.
Instead of the pandemic ending, we must now protect ourselves against perpetual rounds of new COVID variants until enough humans on this planet have received the COVID vaccine to achieve herd immunity.
While traveling last month from Lima to Machu Picchu, I found that Peruvians take COVID very seriously, and for good reason.
While many things in America’s health care system need improvement, Peru’s seems almost nonexistent by comparison. When the original variant of COVID swept through Peru, hospital beds were hard to come by, and oxygen even more so — a plight common in many developing countries.
When compared to 205 other countries, Peru ranks No. 1 in COVID deaths per capita, with 6,114 per million. That is more than double the COVID death rate of Hungary, the second country on the list.
COVID vaccines first became available in Peru in May and, as of August, only citizens ages 39 or older who lived in urban areas were eligible to receive them due to limited supplies.
All Peruvians, except in remote mountain villages, wear double masks both indoors and outside. On public transit, including the buses and trains I took, face shields are required along with double masks.
And hand sanitizer use is ubiquitous. Not only is it required before entering any premise, most people wear sanitizer bottles strung on lanyard necklaces. They spray their hands, their masks, their clothes and each other with unabashed regularity.
Peru has no anti-vaxxer or safety-protocol-resistance movements. The first months of the original COVID outbreak devastated the country. From that lived experience, Peruvians understand that the risks of contracting COVID are far and away greater than any risks associated with vaccination.
Does the luxurious belief that our health care system will save us should we contract COVID (a notion no Peruvian can entertain) contribute to some Americans’ entitled resistance to following safety protocols and getting vaccinated?
The only way this pandemic will stop disrupting daily life, including economically, is for widespread vaccination to occur. Globally, this means rich nations like ours need to aggressively obtain and dispense vaccines in developing countries from which new variants will otherwise continue to arise and spread.
Meanwhile, back in the States, 179 million of Americans have been vaccinated with so few significant side effects as to be statistically zero. But in a country of 331 million, the U.S. vaccination rate is only 54%, which is not high enough to neutralize a disease.
Like many, I have loved ones who are vaccine hesitaters. Last spring, my three eldest sons wanted to stage an intervention for someone in our family who is a hesitater with an autoimmune disorder. But I doubt that would have persuaded this person to get a COVID vaccine.
Instead, our loved one finally got vaccinated because someone they respected kept admonishing everyone to do so: the pastor at their church.
This year it was masks off in May, back on in September, but I don’t think it’ll become a regular seasonal switcheroo. Remember when white shoes and shorts were fashionable only between Memorial Day and Labor Day? If you broke that rule, however, nobody died. The same is not true of COVID safety protocols. Just ask any Peruvian.
Mask mandates likely will remain in place all year for the foreseeable future unless the world comes together to achieve widespread vaccination rates and thereby herd immunity for COVID-19.
Which new normal do we want?
This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, September 26, 2021.