What's normal? Adapting to COVID-19

Experts say don't ditch the masks yet, even though vaccines are still almost 100% effective at preventing deaths and serious disease.

As we approach the July 4th holiday, this year could not be more different from last year. One year ago, the virus was surging, there were no vaccines, and seemingly few Americans cared. The stunning “second wave” accelerated the USA’s death rate and expanded misery and division. Now, with new cases and deaths sharply down in direct relation to vaccination rates, many people are acting as if the pandemic is over. The question is, is it?

These charts from Our World in Data show the progression of the pandemic in the USA since a year ago. Things were not good before July 4th, but they got dramatically worse — and spread pretty much everywhere — after then.

The current situation is far better than a year ago, and the vaccines in use in the United States are proving to work remarkably well — even against the concerning “delta” variant that ravaged India and pushed the UK and other countries back into lockdown.

But the vaccines only work when they get into people’s arms. In the San Francisco Bay area, vaccination rates are high in nearly every community — 80% or higher. The result: even usually cautious public health experts are saying it’s OK to go out, you don’t need a mask, and carry on as you were before.

However, you only need to go about 100 miles to reach areas where fewer than 30% have gotten one dose, such as Merced or Lake counties. If you look at the CDC’s county-by-county data across the country, the pattern is clear. Areas with high rates of vaccination have astonishingly few new cases or deaths, while those with low vaccination rates a still seeing new infections, hospitalizations and deaths.

When the news gives the aggregate nationwide numbers, COVID-19 appears to be in the rearview mirror. But when you look around your community, how healthy are people there? Base your own actions on the reality in which you live, work or play. I may be safe going out in Marin without a mask, but I’ll put it back on if I go somewhere beyond the Bay area. Some experts agree.

In fact, with the rapidly spreading delta variant — which appears to be transmissible with only minimal interaction between people, the WHO and others are saying directly: put on a mask if you are going indoors where others are present.

Here are some other news items of note:

What has also become clear is that getting people vaccinated requires one-on-one conversations. If you encounter someone who isn’t vaccinated, ask them what concerns they have. Listen. Then help connect them with answers. One useful resource is WeCanDoThis.hhs.gov, and there are many others.1

Have a safe and healthful Fourth of July weekend.

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Disclosure: I am a consultant for a contractor that supports part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services but was not involved in developing the WeCanDoThis campaign.