To the 28-year-old high school teacher, the expectation of a return to relative normalcy that came with mass coronavirus vaccination efforts is fading fast.
“There was that sense of hope and then, all of a sudden — I’m not saying that it’s been dashed — but it feels like everything is still up in the air,” said the public school teacher, who asked that his name not be used.
“No matter how much we want it to end … there’s still so much we don’t know,” he said of the pandemic.
January saw a record number of coronavirus deaths, with even more predicted by the end of February. Vaccines have arrived and others are on the way, yet more contagious variants of the virus have emerged. As tens of millions of Americans await vaccinations, lagging inoculation numbers and vaccine shortages temper expectations of normality anytime soon.
“We’re not at the beginning of the end of this pandemic,” said sociologist, physician and Yale professor Nicholas Christakis, who wrote “Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live.”
“We’re just at the end of the beginning.”
Two steps forward, one step back
The “dark winter” then-President-elect Joe Biden warned about is getting bleaker.
The teacher said classrooms in his school in the Southern US were shuttered two weeks ago when the number of coronavirus infections exploded. The campus saw at least one infection every school day in January, he said. He asked that he be identified only as Adrian for fear of losing his job.
Highly contagious coronavirus variants are likely to worsen the spread across the US and add to the mounting death toll, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.
“There was definitely a sense of optimism… There was the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Adrian, who has been teaching nearly six years.
Now, he added, “There’s this constant unknown… still hanging over us.”
That unknown last week led the board of the Bridging Hands Camps for deaf/hard of hearing children and children of deaf adults in Maryland to close this summer for the second year in a row.
“In the deaf community, we often drive far and near to hang out with other deaf peers,” camp president Amy Crumrine, who is deaf, said via email. “It’s become harder for kids to understand why it’s taking a long time to get back to their normal routines.”
Crumrine said the decision to cancel camp for about 40 children, ages 7 to 13, was due in large part to the slow rollout of the vaccines and emergence of more infectious variants — which Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, called a “wake-up call to all of us.”
“It was a very hard decision for the board to make,” said Crumrine, an American Sign Language teacher in Montgomery County Public Schools. “There is a huge loss of opportunities for deaf and KODA (kids of deaf adults) children to connect.”
The variants add a layer of complexity
Scientists are concerned that multiple new coronavirus variants could become more dominant in the US by the spring, according to Fauci.
Already, more than 400 cases of a coronavirus variant first identified in the UK have been reported across the US. The UK variant and another first identified in South Africa are more easily transmitted than the strain the US has been fighting. There are no indications the new variants are more deadly though an increase in cases can lead to more deaths.
“I was more hopeful of a summer that would kind of allow people to go to camp and travel and that sort of thing. I’m less sure about that now,” epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch, director of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, told reporters earlier in January, referring to the UK variant.
“That just makes this a much harder problem, and it emphasizes the need for as rapid as possible vaccination,” he added. “It’s a big deal for a world that’s already stretched trying to keep under control the old variant.”
Despite challenges posed by the slow Covid-19 vaccine rollout, Fauci recently predicted that the US can vaccinate 70-85% of adults by the end of summer — which could bring a semblance of normalcy to the country by the fall.
‘We’re going to have a party’ but it’ll be a while
But Christakis said the long history of pandemics indicates relative normality may be more like years away. By the beginning of 2022, he predicts, herd immunity will have been reached, with the majority of the population having received the vaccine. But people will still be wearing masks and social distancing. Then there will be a couple of years of recovery from the psychological, social and economic shock of the virus.
“Yes, on an individual level, it’s terrific to get a vaccine but that’s not enough,” he said. “It’s you plus at least half of everyone else vaccinated before you can begin to have a kind of semblance of normality but, even then, it’s like the tsunami has pulled back from the shore but we have to rebuild our houses.”
The end of the pandemic, Christakis predicts, will be followed by a period he likens to a second “roaring 20s” just as after the 1918 flu pandemic.
“Come 2024 we’re going to have a party … a kind of roaring 20s of the 21st century because we will finally have put this 21st century plague behind us,” said Christakis, describing a world of mass consumerism, packed stadiums and concert halls, crowded nightclubs and bars and licentious revelry.
He urged Americans to not despair over the prolonged health crisis and to acknowledge the remarkable scientific achievement of developing vaccines in less than a year.
“We’re the first generation of humans ever alive who are confronting this ancient threat of plagues, which humans have been confronting for thousands of years … who have been able to invent an effective specific countermeasure in real time,” he said. “So it’s amazing. It’s totally miraculous and unprecedented.”
He added, “We don’t need to be depressed… But at the same time we need to be realistic and mature, and this fantasy that the vaccine is going to miraculously just suddenly put us back to early 2019, it’s not true, unfortunately. And so I don’t want people’s expectations and hopes to be dashed. I think we need to work together. And let’s not forget we’re still having 3,000 or 4,0000 Americans dying every day.”
The ‘therapeutic value’ of being hopeful
David Blustein, a professor of psychology at Boston College, said it’s important for people “to maintain a hopeful view but also a realistic view that this could be a long haul.”
“First of all, being hopeful has a therapeutic value,” he said. “Being able to be hopeful about the future is useful for us. And it provides us with some protective psychological armor. But we don’t want that hope to be completely unrealistic. So we have to look at past behavior of our society. We’ve been able to develop a vaccine in less than a year and multiple vaccines that work really well.”
In Maryland, Crumrine said organizers now hope to reopen the summer camp for deaf children in the summer of 2022.
“It’s difficult to social distance at camp since many activities require teamwork,” she said. “In the deaf community, we rely heavily on touching, patting shoulders to get attention, giving each other hugs, touching our arms, faces… Too often, deaf children who have hearing parents are stuck at home without sufficient language access because they usually are the only deaf child at home.”
Adrian, the teacher at a high school in the Southern US, wrote in a recent social media post that the long pandemic has driven three colleagues he considered mentors to other professions. He said he, too, has considered leaving but does not want to turn his back on his students.
“As time goes on … we just have more and more stress piled on us,” he said of teachers. “And it feels like my to-do list grows by 10 items every day. And I accomplish maybe two. It feels very overwhelming… We’re just trying to take it a day at a time and get through tomorrow.”