This week, the United States will have passed an important milestone in the covid-19 pandemic: 100 million vaccine doses administered in the country, with over 60 million Americans having gotten one or more doses of the vaccines developed by Moderna, Pfizer/BioNTech, and Johnson & Johnson.
This accomplishment is so noteworthy not just because of where the country was last year—on the brink of the first horrific wave that killed tens of thousands in New York alone—but because of what it means for our future. It’s the latest sign among many that the pandemic really is losing steam in the U.S., if not everywhere. Despite people’s reasonable fears about the spread of new variants of the virus or the risks of loosening restrictions on physical distancing in some states, the worst-case scenario of a fourth spring peak is becoming increasingly unlikely with each day. All we have to do is hold on a bit longer.
Just so readers know where I’m coming from, much of my writing in March 2020 focused on the systematic failures of the country’s initial response to the pandemic, while pleading with people and public health organizations to take covid-19 more seriously. Back then, many of us—for reasons understandable and not—underestimated the threat of covid-19. But a year later, I think many people have swung around too far and are now overestimating the continued threat of the pandemic in the U.S., at least given the current facts on the ground.
For one, the metrics we use to keep track of the pandemic’s spread are all looking very encouraging. Daily cases and total hospitalizations continue to decline, with an 11% decrease in reported cases this week compared to last, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In mid-February, there was concern that cases were once again beginning to tick up, but it now seems that rise was largely due to delays in reporting caused by several major winter storms and President’s Day.
To be clear, our current status quo is still awful. We’ve only barely started to dip below the levels of cases and hospitalizations seen during the summer peak last year (any comparisons to spring 2020 are hard to make, since testing was very limited then). There are still around 40,000 people in U.S. hospitals due to covid-19, and thousands of people are still dying every week.
But the biggest reason why I’m so optimistic about the near future of the pandemic goes back to that vaccine milestone reached this week.
After a rocky start, the pace of daily vaccinations has now found its groove, with over 2 million people receiving a dose each day on average. This week, 10% of Americans became fully vaccinated, while 20% have gotten at least one dose of the Pfizer/BioNtech or Moderna vaccine. Perhaps most importantly, the percentage of older Americans vaccinated has climbed fastest of all, with 72% of adults over 75 having received at least one dose, along with 63% of adults over 65. In other countries with high vaccine uptake among the elderly, like Israel, vaccination has already led to dramatic drops in deaths and hospitalizations, so the same should happen here. These vaccines don’t just prevent serious illness and death—it’s also become clear by now that they reduce the risk of transmission.
The vaccine rollout is only expected to accelerate over the next few months, to the point where President Biden felt confident enough to promise in a prime-time speech on Thursday that all states would make the vaccine eligible for everyone over the age of 18 by May 1. This universal eligibility doesn’t guarantee that every willing American will have gotten vaccinated by then, but it’s likely every American who wants a vaccine will be able to get it before the summer, and some states may achieve that goal even quicker.
In response to this good news, I’ve seen friends, readers, and people on social media reasonably retort: “Well, what about the variants? Or what about Texas, etc, ditching mask mandates?”
People are absolutely right to be worried about the spread of more transmissible variants, some of which might also be better at evading vaccine-provided immunity. But, crucially, there’s no variant in our midst that’s been shown to completely escape the existing vaccines (which can be adjusted if needed). The B.1.1.7 variant, first found in the UK and the one considered most likely to become common in the U.S., doesn’t seem more able to circumvent vaccine-provided immunity than the classic strains we’ve been dealing with.
If this were early January, and B.1.1.7 or another troublesome variant were already widespread in the U.S. with over 200,000 cases a day, the risk of a variant-led peak might be almost certain. In mid-March, though, with cases still dropping and millions getting vaccinated every day, the chances are substantially lower. The same calculus should apply to discussions around reopening. Ideally, states like Texas or Connecticut would just wait a few more weeks to fully relax pandemic restrictions. But if factors like variants and indoor gatherings can be seen as weights on one end of the scale, the growing rate of vaccination will be a huge counterbalance that should spare us from another peak of mass death and illness.
Not everyone is so lucky. In Brazil and Italy, the pandemic has truly resurged, sparked by the emergence of variants that have once again overwhelmed hospitals. Both Italy and Brazil have far lower vaccination rates than the U.S., and Brazil in particular is still led by Jair Bolsonaro, who has denied the severity of the pandemic from the very start and continues to do so even now. These countries could be seen as a cautionary tale of what would have happened in the U.S. if our vaccination efforts had continued to lag and variants like B.1.1.7 had established a foothold earlier.
As I wrote in early February, being optimistic about the pandemic ending sooner rather than later isn’t an excuse to be irresponsible. Yes, the vaccines will ultimately save the day, and people who are fully vaccinated should feel comfortable spending time indoors and unmasked with family or friends they haven’t seen in a while, especially if they’re also vaccinated. But the end is not quite here yet, and even once every American has access to a vaccine, covid-19 will continue to be a (mercifully much smaller) thorn in our side.
Herd immunity in the U.S. will never be reached if a sizable portion of the community remains hesitant to get vaccinated. Many low-income countries are still locked out of vaccine access for the foreseeable future, partly because wealthier countries like the U.S. have stockpiled much of the supply. The coronavirus will also continue to adapt (though likely not as easily as the flu virus) and could cause new outbreaks, especially in the fall and winter, so we’ll need to adjust right back. And there remain many survivors who are dealing with long-term symptoms that we’re still trying to understand.
Things won’t go back to normal all at once, but the worst is almost certainly behind us, and it’s okay to acknowledge that as we start to move forward.