The Wild West period of the pandemic
As restrictions are lifted, the vaccine divide is creating new ethical quandaries
This town ain't big enough for both the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. But unfortunately for the un-immune, it's about to become the Wild West out there.
By the end of this week, the CDC expects that 50 percent of U.S. adults will have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine — that, of course, leaving a full 50 percent still unprotected against the disease. Even so, the momentum is shifting toward dropping pandemic precautions, lifting regulations, and returning to normal life as quickly as possible.
Sure, there will be a certain percentage of people who choose to never get the vaccine; but for those who want to get vaccinated and have yet to secure an appointment, the most harrowing and lawless period of the pandemic could just be beginning. It could also be one of the most challenging periods for those who are lucky enough to be inoculated already — and who will ultimately have to balance their eagerness to safely get back out in the world with the risk that remains for others.
On Friday, 956 people died of COVID-19 in the United States — about one person every minute and a half. Though deaths have generally been trending downward, that's still nine hundred and fifty-six people who died of something that is now almost completely preventable. As such, they are particularly anguishing cases ("like getting shot near the end of the war," is how one person I follow described it), and part of why CDC Director Rochelle Walensky has confessed she's "very worried" about the coming weeks. "Just please hold on a little while longer," she and other health experts have begged.
As of next Monday, all U.S. adults will be eligible to get vaccinated. But that still requires would-be recipients to be aware of the updated eligibility windows in their states, as well as to proactively seek out an appointment time — a process that can be murky and frustrating even for the most determined people. A lot of these obstacles are public health and information failures; one particularly heartbreaking article that circulated last month suggested as many as 7 million Americans don't plan to get vaccinated because they don't know it's free. But it's also simply logistics; when you're vaccinating a nation's worth of people, there are going to be some who are later in line than others.
The problem is, until recently, everyone was somewhat equally protected as they moved about the world by diligent mask usage, capacity limits on indoor spaces, and other local policies that were intended to blunt the spread of the disease. But as more and more people become immune to the virus, life is going to tilt back toward "normal" — leaving those still waiting to be vaccinated more or less out to dry. Take New York, which has historically been one of the more cautious states in the country, as an example: restaurants outside of the city have already been allowed to reopen at 75 percent capacity, despite strong evidence that indoor dining is linked to COVID-19 outbreaks, and Dr. Anthony Fauci's own warnings that restrictions should not be lifted until cases fall below 10,000 on average per day nationally (the current 7-day average is over 64,000).
Unfortunately, we're already seeing the corresponding case spikes from this phenomenon of reopening before everyone is protected. "[L]ulled into a false sense of security by the increasing rate of vaccinations, coronavirus wards at local hospitals are increasingly being populated by younger, still-unvaccinated adults who've let their guard down," NBC News wrote earlier this month, going on to quote President Joe Biden, who stressed that "we're seeing … occasionally even tragic deaths in quite young people."
This will be one of the most dangerous periods of the pandemic, then, as half the population reverts to acting like it's February 2020, while the other half is still at risk of catching the disease. Though every vaccinated person brings us closer to herd immunity, we're still months away from reaching a point where we can collectively breathe a sigh of relief.
Additionally, the eagerness by those who are vaccinated to get back out in the world is actually prolonging the suffering. Those of us who are in the protected 50 percent face an ethical dilemma, one where we have to play sheriff with ourselves. Yes, we can safely dine indoors and attend ballgames and go to movies with minimal risk to ourselves and low risk to others — but that doesn't mean restaurants and ballparks and movie theaters should be open for us to enjoy yet. Particularly with the rampant spread of COVID-19 variants, we need to reach a point where all adults who want a vaccine have been able to obtain an appointment before those decisions should be made (notably, this is different from being "held hostage" — as my colleague Bonnie Kristian perfectly put it — by the small minority who refuse to get a vaccine despite all evidence of safe efficiency).
I understand the impulse to resume life as normal, because I feel it myself. I'm so ready to be done with masks, with being afraid of strangers, and with having to do everything outdoors. Getting your vaccination is a moment of explosive optimism and possibility; the shot gives you a future to look forward to again. There's nothing wrong with wanting to celebrate; but how we do so when half the country still is at risk of infection, though, is something else.
It's probably too much to expect our leaders to turn back loosened restrictions as those last remaining would-be vaccine recipients wait for their turns. But that will mean, once again, America's every-man-and-woman-for-themselves mentality is going to cost lives.
If only we'd been able to hold our horses, this one last time.