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Entering the “New Normal”: Are We Easing COVID-19 Restrictions Too Soon?

As the Omicron wave of COVID-19 falls off the backs of our shoulders, many legislators and political leaders have decided to ease pandemic restrictions, which includes lifting mask mandates. Private businesses have followed suit. In fact, most of the country, and the world, is moving forward as if COVID-19 is over.

The U.S.’s decision to ease pandemic restrictions is reflected in the CDC’s issuing of new guidelines regarding the spread of COVID-19 and its easing of existing mask mandates, which took place February 25th, 2022. The guidelines hinged on metrics that determined whether people in a particular geographic area were at a high risk of contracting the virus, and the CDC placed more emphasis on hospitalizations as a key measure of risk (as opposed to case counts).

Such easement affected 70 percent of the U.S. population, and it reflects a federal view that the U.S. has entered a different, potentially less dangerous, phase of the pandemic (or its total demise, perhaps). However, the CDC also just came out with a report that COVID-19 was the third-leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2021 for the second straight year.

Given these statistics and the remaining uncertainty over the trajectory of the pandemic, have we jumped the gun? Have we eased COVID-19 restrictions presumptuously?

COVID-19 Restrictions Ease On A Global Scale

The U.S.’s easement of COVID-19 restrictions follows other countries’ decisions to do the same or similar. Switzerland, for example, no longer requires people to wear masks in most public spaces. The Netherlands also lifted its mask mandate for public transit, and the Dutch airline KLM will no longer enforce mask requirements on board. Additionally, Denmark lifted all virus restrictions as of February 1st, 2022.

However, other countries that have dropped restrictions, like the United Kingdom, have seen a subsequent increase in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths. In a recent article for the international journal, Nature, Deepti Gurdasani, an epidemiologist at Queen Mary University of London, said, “Although some [deaths following a positive test] are incidental, there is a very large proportion that is deaths due to COVID-19. It’s a very concerning situation – and that’s not even talking about the impact of long COVID.”

Other scientists weighed in for Nature. Müge Çevik, infectious disease and medical virology researcher at the University of St Andrews, UK said, “It’s clear now we can’t prevent infections, so the focus needs to be on preventing severe outcomes.” “The argument for keeping up the restrictions has really gone,” said Joël Mossong, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at Luxembourg’s Health Directorate, “I think we’re now in a phase where the strategy to remove restrictions is the right way to go.”

Are We Transitioning From Pandemic To Endemic?

“We’re starting to hear the word ‘endemic,’” says Charlotte Baker, an epidemiology professor at Virginia Tech. But what does that mean? The word “endemic” comes from the Greek word “endēmos,” which means “in the population.” Essentially, “endemics” refer to diseases that are always present at a baseline level – say influenza, for example. While pandemics and epidemics are characterized by the surprising and unexpected behavior of a disease, endemic illnesses come with a certain level of predictability.

So, are we there yet? Should we start viewing COVID-19 as an endemic disease? A recent Coronavirus FAQ done by NPR posed this question to Professor Baker. “We’re all in a rush to get to the endemic stage – I would love it,” Baker says, “But when it will happen is a really good question.”

Currently, Omicron’s subvariant, BA.2, is the dominant COVID-19 variant, and BA.2-related hospitalizations are likely to continue to decline in the U.S. throughout the spring and summertime. Therefore, if Omicron and its subvariant remain the dominant strains, then U.S. hospitalizations will likely remain at low levels throughout 2022. But could there be a new variant on the horizon? The short answer is yes.

Just when we thought the pandemic had begun fading into the background, new variants emerged. Since March, China has battled its biggest Covid wave yet, with Shanghai now the largest hotspot. At present, all 25 million Chinese residents are under lockdown after a surge in COVID-19 cases. In March, a new COVID-19 variant “not yet known to the world” just touched down in Israel. And the UK recently detected a new Omicron subvariant, the XE variant.

In the two-plus years that COVID-19 has existed, four strains in succession have become internationally dominant. Therefore, the next variant could emerge moments after this article is published, six months from now or years down the line. Truthfully, there is no way of knowing what the future holds.

Governments and institutions at the local, state and federal level have tried to evolve their policies at the same rate at which the virus has evolved. However, due to lack of testing, political concerns and changing public will, policies have not been able to keep up.

On April 13th, the Biden administration extended its face mask mandate for public transportation until May 3rd. Just five days later, a federal judge in Florida voided the mask mandate. In response, the Justice Department filed notice of its plans to appeal the ruling. As of the time of publication, masks are not required on planes, trains or buses in the U.S.

Some institutions of higher learning have also reverted to pre-endemic behavior. According to a CBS News article, colleges in Washington, D.C., New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Texas have reimposed a range of virus measures in response to the BA.2 variant surge. Howard University has even made the decision to go back to remote learning from April 14th through April 22nd.

Many companies have started to require their employees to come back into the office while others have let workers remain at home. Others are implementing hybrid work schedules which require employees to come into the office part of the time while allowing them to work from home part of the time.

What Does The “New Normal” Entail?

So, where are we to go from here? If we truly have begun the transition from pandemic to endemic – the “new normal” per se – then what does it look like? Well, right now it looks like a bit of a roller coaster ride with ups and downs and plenty of questions along the way.

A group of 24 public health experts defined the “next” normal as one where there is “likely to be a better work-life balance with more teleworking and less commuting, a platform for rapid development of highly effective vaccines and therapeutics, better indoor air quality, fewer respiratory infections of all kinds, and more effective surveillance to anticipate and respond to new viral threats.”

COVID-19 taught us that our old definition of essential workers was inadequate. It taught us that the exact number and kinds of workers are different from what we previously suspected and that many workers can do their jobs from the comfort of home. For these reasons, we can anticipate future working environments to be profoundly different than they once were.

While the workspace has always served as a company’s operating system, COVID-19 has forced employers to reconsider its landscape. Must employees be in the office to perform their jobs? Are virtual meetings just as effective? Was the available technology able to live up to demand? While uniform office spaces once were the heart of a company, the hybrid work model is likely to take over in COVID-19’s wake.

Moving beyond the workplace environment, the pandemic also raised the bar for vaccine development. As so many communities struggled to access COVID-19 vaccines, we will likely see an increase in global vaccine-manufacturing capacity. Furthermore, expanding manufacturing efforts to lower-income communities is another way of helping future populations access vaccines faster.

As a result, it can be predicted that the “new normal” will be one of routine vaccination. Just like influenza, we can expect different strains to emerge and the need for routine boosters to continue. After battling COVID-19 for two-plus years, vaccines have proved to be an effective tool for reducing hospitalizations and deaths, as well as decreasing the spread of variants.

Whenever we finally transition from pandemic to endemic, we can realistically expect COVID-19 to fade into a more seasonal virus that is combatted by regular vaccinations. Of course, the biggest obstacle to entering the endemic stage is the emergence of new variants. And the simple truth of the matter is that we don’t know when the next COVID-19 variant will strike.

The only certainty regarding our future – this “new normal” – is its unpredictability. As long as we continue to learn from COVID-19’s lessons, apply what we have learned, and cope with changing circumstances, we will not only emerge stronger than we ever were, but we will also emerge better prepared to deal with any uncertainties that the future may bring.

What Do You Think?

Are we removing COVID-19 restrictions too fast or not fast enough? Have we entered the “new normal” or do we have a long way to go? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.