Talking Points

The new-ish normal-ish now that the pandemic is over-ish

The pandemic isn't over in America. But it's over-ish? Maybe? Who really knows?

Take a couple of data points from the last few days. On Tuesday, Anthony Fauci — the nation's top infectious diseases expert — went on TV and made an astonishing declaration: "We are certainly right now in this country out of the pandemic phase." Great news!

Except, also on Tuesday, CNN reported Fauci pulled out of this weekend's White House Correspondents Association dinner because of concerns about rising COVID case counts. President Biden still plans to attend, at least for now, but Vice President Kamala Harris probably won't. She just tested positive for the coronavirus on Tuesday. 

Confusing, right?

Maybe it helps to know that Fauci on Wednesday clarified his comments in The Washington Post. It's not that the pandemic in America is actually over, he said, but the "full-blown pandemic phase" — that phase over the winter when hospitalizations and deaths spiked across the country because of the Omicron variant — is shifting into something less severe.

"Right now we're at a low enough level that I believe that we're transitioning into endemicity," he told the Post. "We're not in the full-blown explosive pandemic phase. That does not mean that the pandemic is over."

And here's what "transitioning" looks like: Everybody — including Fauci — is on their own, at least as far as figuring out their comfort level being in public. That's increasingly been the case since vaccines became widely available last year, of course, but events of recent weeks have cemented the notion: A judge struck down masking requirements on public transit — a decision the Biden Administration seems to be challenging only half-heartedly — and Philadelphia decided to impose and then quickly rescind a brand-new masking order. 

A poll taken after the judge's decision revealed most Americans still want a mandate for buses, subways, and airplanes. But authorities are tired of fighting and losing bloody culture war battles over the issue, so we'll have to get comfortable and decide how to decide, as Fauci did with the dinner, when to just stay home.

That means older and immunocompromised Americans, especially, will have to keep a close eye on case counts as they determine whether they can do things like go to church or eat in a restaurant. Fauci is no longer leading an effort to restrict our activities when the virus surges — instead, he's (probably inadvertently) modeling what the near-future looks like for millions. Going to a big party seemed like an okay idea for him a few weeks ago. Now it doesn't.

And that's the new normal: Things being kind of okay — except when they're not.