There is a growing consensus among health professionals: Covid-19 may never go away. We’ll likely always have some coronavirus out there infecting people and, hopefully on rare occasions, making them seriously ill. The realistic goal is to detoxify the virus – make it less deadly – and not eliminate it entirely.
This is not a surrender to the virus. We’ve lived for a long time with seasonal flu, a family of viruses that kills up to tens of thousands of Americans each year. We can and should take steps to reduce the risks of the flu (including annual vaccination), but we have never been ready to shut down society or personal schools to eradicate it completely. Americans have accepted some risk in order to continue to live normally.
The same is likely to be the case with Covid-19 as well. The highly transmissible Delta variant seems to have cemented this possibility, which shows that the coronavirus will also continue to spread in states and countries with higher vaccination rates.
Looking back in the earlier days of the pandemic, initial hope with vaccines was more modest. Previously, the Food and Drug Administration had set the standard for an acceptable Covid-19 vaccine with an effectiveness of 50 percent. The expectation was that the vaccine would not stop all cases of Covid-19, but would at least reduce the severity of the disease. Peter Hotez of Baylor College said at the time, “Even if it’s not the best vaccine, it could still keep me from going to the hospital or worse.”
But somewhere along the way – perhaps with the news that the vaccines were far more effective than expected – that message was lost. And now everything that is lacking in perfection is perceived as failure.
Consider the study of the Provincetown, Massachusetts outbreak recently published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The first headlines about the study focused on the fact that three quarters of the cases tracked in the study were in vaccinated individuals, showing that the virus has spread to a very vaccinated community. The CDC’s new policy that vaccinated people should wear masks in public found that the Delta variant can spread at high levels even among those who received their vaccinations.
But if you look closely at the details of the outbreak, they revealed some very good news for people who have been vaccinated. Of the more than 1,000 cases linked to Provincetown to date, only seven hospital admissions (some unvaccinated) and no deaths have been reported.
If that had been 2020, given general hospital admissions and death rates, the outbreak would likely have caused around 100 hospital admissions and 10 deaths.
The Provincetown outbreak then revealed that the vaccines had helped detoxify the coronavirus – to make it more like the flu.
“We should cheer,” Amesh Adalja from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security told me. “Contrary to what the press reported, the Provincetown outbreak was not evidence of the vaccine’s failure, but of their overwhelming success.”
In short, watch out for hospitalizations and deaths, not just cases.
There are concerns about “long covid” – lasting effects on those infected, such as overwhelming fatigue. However, experts say that serious long-term symptoms after a Covid-19 infection seem to be quite rare (although this problem is still being investigated). And in any case, these types of long-term symptoms are not only unique to the coronavirus; they occur with seasonal flu, for example.
We still need to get more people vaccinated, but at some point we need to acknowledge that we have done what we can. It may not be ideal, but we can learn to live with a vaccine-weakened version of Covid-19 – hopefully not as dissimilar to how we have been dealing with the flu for a long time.