Opinion

The great COVID disconnect

BA.5 is on the rampage, but most Americans believe the pandemic is over

The damn thing finally got me. After two and a half years of dodging the coronavirus, my wife and I gambled on an overseas trip and came back with COVID. We were probably infected at one of the airports, where we were trapped for hours in closely packed throngs of mostly unmasked people, who were sneezing, coughing, and braying with no concern about spreading infection. As we wave the white flag of de facto surrender, the BA.5 variant is surging, with known new infections up 20 percent in two weeks, 40,000 hospitalized, and deaths creeping back up to 3,000 a week. When immersed in aerosolized clouds of this hyper-infectious variant for prolonged periods, even masked people are at high risk. Despite my two boosters and excellent overall health, COVID made me sicker than I'd been for decades, with a fever, massive congestion, crushing fatigue, and a body that ached like I'd been beaten with a baseball bat. I'm still hacking after two weeks. It's no cold. 

We've entered a surreal stage of the pandemic: Most people have such understandable COVID fatigue they've decided it must be over. Even if people get infected, they tell themselves, it'll be "mild." Wishful thinking. COVID, for many, is no mere respiratory disease; SARS-CoV-2 can maraud through the body, damaging the heart, brain, and multiple organs. It can wreak havoc on the immune system. Multiple infections, studies show, can double or triple the risk of severe illness and long COVID. With millions of ongoing infections, the virus keeps mutating at breakneck speed to elude prior immunity from illness and vaccination. "Living with the virus" may mean getting COVID three or more times a year, amid a constant backdrop of widespread illness. British immunologist Danny Altmann compares our COVID reality to "being trapped on a roller coaster in a horror film." We might prefer to shut our eyes and cover our ears, but this movie is not over.

This is the editor's letter in the current issue of The Week magazine.

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