This week, the United States reached a milestone. Among Americans over 18 years old, 70 percent are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Another 10 percent are partially vaccinated, with a full course just weeks away. Of those in the most vulnerable demographic, Americans over 65, almost 100 percent have at least some immunities against this disease. The speed with which American society raced to develop, produce, and distribute effective COVID vaccines represents a profound scientific, sociological, and political achievement. And yet, no one seems to care.
The national debate around COVID has long since moved on from quaint metrics such as vaccination rates. In fact, it has moved on from setting any expectations whatsoever about what was once our shared national goal: a “return to normalcy.”
Recall the hopeful days of mid-spring, when rapid uptake of vaccines across the country represented a “light at the end of the tunnel.” By late May, a full 50 percent of the American population was already fully vaccinated, and some states had already achieved the Biden administration’s one-time goal of seeing at least 70 percent of their residents fully or partially immunized. “That’s a big deal, folks,” Biden tweeted. While few public health policy professionals believed it was possible to fully immunize every last American, that wouldn’t be necessary. As John Hopkins Center for Health Security policy scholar Amesh Adalja told reporters, “it is important to show people that getting vaccinated allows them to return to their pre-pandemic life completely.”
At the time, that seemed plausible. Vaccination uptake made it possible for the CDC to reverse its masking guidelines for those with a full course of their respective vaccines, and public-facing venues relaxed their social-distancing requirements. “The United States is back to normal in the sense that we have defanged this virus and removed its ability to threaten hospital capacity,” Adalja insisted. Although the Biden administration missed its goal of seeing 70 percent of the total adult population at least partially immunized by July 4, that milestone was reached less than a month later. And after all, the president’s objective wasn’t to eradicate the virus but to put “the nation on a path to get closer to normal.”
At the state level, normalcy remained the goal. “Or as normalized as you can be, post-COVID,” qualified former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The key that would unlock normalcy was still that 70 percent threshold. Once that was achieved, social distancing and hygiene protocols would disappear, contact-tracing regimes would wither away, and masking would be subject to individual discretion. There might be a few restrictions in place in venues that cater to vulnerable populations or in schools. “But we hit 70 percent,” Cuomo advertised, “we will be back to life as normal.”
But as “normal” approached, so, too, did anxiety over the prospect. Reengaging with public life seemed increasingly “daunting.” The psychological stresses associated with the return of the “old normal” appeared less and less appealing to the professional classes that had fully adjusted to a more atomized life. And the public health bureaucracy became vocally critical of the institutions and executive agencies that were committed to reopening society while case rates remained high and COVID-related hospitalizations and deaths persisted.
No one is even talking about “normalcy” anymore, much less how we get there. Today, we have settled into a false consensus about what “normalcy” is.
Among the expert classes and the governments responsive to them, the discourse has moved on from vaccination rates among adults to vaccination rates among very young children. It has devolved into collegial deliberation over the efficacy of vaccination mandates, the pace at which Americans are getting vaccination boosters, and whether the quasi-legal status “fully vaccinated” needs to be amended to exclude those with only one or two shots. Save a few exceptions that prove the rule, charming concepts such as “normalcy” and “off-ramps” are absent from the elite conversation around this virus.
Meanwhile, communities farther removed from this false consensus have established their own equilibrium. Masking never returned to these communities at rates that preceded the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s abrupt about-face on the value of post-vaccination interventions like surgical masks. The social stigma around ignoring the CDC’s recommendations has melted away. Local businesses and national chains alike no longer enforce mandates. Municipal facilities, gyms, athletic venues, and even childcare facilities do not present these Americans with a constant reminder of the ongoing public health emergency. With the notable and onerous exception of schools, the pandemic’s demands on these citizens are endurably minimal.
For now, this will have to suffice for normalcy, if only because no one can agree on what would trigger a reversion to the status quo ante. For some, it’s still vaccination rates—maybe 85 to 90 percent of the entire population, including very young children. For others, it’s infinitesimally low case rates and a guarantee the hospitals nationwide are no longer at risk of being overwhelmed by a local surge of infections. Still others won’t be “widening our bubble” to include indoor gatherings of any kind before a critical mass of five-year-olds have been inoculated. The more honest among the anxiety-plagued will admit that there will be no return to “normal” because “normal wasn’t good enough.”
As recently as late September, medical experts were still busily forecasting the imminence of U.S. vaccination rates approaching 70 to 80 percent of the entire population in months. But, so what? Even as they issued these predictions, few experts suggested this would produce anything resembling “normal.”
“We’re past the point where a one-size-fits-all approach works for the entire country,” Harvard University’s Dr. Joseph Allen admitted. Indeed. A regionalized patchwork of divergent and often conflicting COVID mitigation regimes has organically arisen. This national kaleidoscope of semi-formalized social contracts around COVID are more observant of local psychological orientations than the threat posed by this or any other disease. That will have to do. At least, for now.
This cold peace will not hold forever. But, depressing as it might be, it is “normal” now.