Did you hear the pandemic is almost over? Several states already have opened, Maryland among them. Governor Hogan has opened Maryland. It is not inconceivable that every state might be “open” in the next few weeks.
Not so fast, says Dr. Fauci. Last Sunday he warned against the premature lifting of restrictions. On Meet the Press, Fauci commented: “You know that metaphor that people say, ‘If you’re going for a touchdown, don’t spike the ball at the five-yard line. Wait until you get into the end zone. We’re not in the end zone yet.”
What prompted Fauci to ruin the party? For one thing, Europe. Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary already have seen a sharp spike in infections. Italy and Germany are now “re-closing.”
Does Europe know something that we don’t? Is Governor Hogan’s action last week a mistake? Will we see a “re-closing” order in a month or so, something that would not only ruin the summer of those of us demanding a reopening but will result in unnecessary infections and deaths?
The answer to this question is not as obvious as some would have us believe. Many people now have both vaccines (around 38 million nationally; more than 11 percent of people in Maryland). Another sizable chunk of the population now has had the virus (more than 29.5 million people nationally, with more than 534,000 cases resulting in death). We are on our way to herd immunity.
Unfortunately, we are not there yet. And then we have three problems that may prove exceptionally difficult to solve. First is the wild card of “new variants” of the virus. The CDC reports: “Viruses constantly change through mutation, and new variants of a virus are expected to occur over time. Sometimes new variants emerge and disappear. Other times, new variants emerge and persist. Multiple variants of the virus that cause COVID-19 have been documented in the U.S. and globally during this pandemic.”
How worried should we be? Commenting on the South Africa and Brazil variants, both of which represent a risk to the U.S., the CDC comments: “These variants seem to spread more easily and quickly than other variants, which may lead to more cases of COVID-19. An increase in the number of cases will put more strain on healthcare resources, lead to more hospitalizations, and potentially more deaths.”
The CDC advises: “Rigorous and increased compliance with public health mitigation strategies, such as vaccination, physical distancing, use of masks, hand hygiene, and isolation and quarantine, is essential to limit the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 and protect public health.”
One might argue that Governor Hogan did not get the CDC’s memo and perhaps is not taking the precautions he should to protect people of color at a time when they have a much higher risk of infection than whites.
Only time will tell whether Maryland should have remained closed, or partially closed. Given that governor’s order, let’s hope that the dangers that the CDC and others identified do not materialize. Let’s also hope that we all do what we can to be as safe as possible in the new environment. We need to continue to wear masks and maintain social distancing as much as possible.
It’s going to be a challenging spring. We have reason to hope we are on the road to normalcy, but we won’t get there unless we go beyond what the government tells us to do and do what we need to.
Second, we have a stubborn group of people who, at least for the time being, refuse to get the vaccine. Perhaps most disturbing are reports that 41 percent of Republicans refuse to get the vaccine. Have they concluded they are immune? One Republican interviewed by CBS News answered, “This is a brand-new vaccine. I’m not going to jeopardize my health; I’m not going to put my kids in harm’s way. … I don’t want to play guinea pig.” How many people must get the vaccine and not die to convince this and other groups that the vaccine is safe?
More troubling is the question of what refusing the vaccine says about the civic responsibility of those who refuse to get it, thereby increasing the risk of infecting others.
Finally, do the numbers suggest that people of color are not getting the vaccine? CDC data, admittedly incomplete, suggests that among those now fully vaccinated, whites are overrepresented compared to non-white groups. That is disturbing data, regardless of what causes non-whites to be less likely to be vaccinated.
J.E. Dean of Oxford is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant. He is a former counsel to the House Committee on Education and Labor. For more than 30 years, he advised clients on federal education and social service policy.