Life was supposed to get back to normal this year. Instead, 2021 has turned into a sort of purgatory. But there are good reasons to hope 2022 will be better.
As this year draws to a close, we want to revisit the pandemic arc – and look to the new year that begins on Saturday.
The last year began with the escalation of a mass vaccination campaign, which many people celebrated by taking selfies after their bandaged arms were shot. In February, new cases of Covid-19 were in free fall and by spring the virus appeared to be in permanent decline. On June 2, President Biden delivered a speech on “a summer of freedom, a summer of joy.”
But then came a turning point in 2021: the emergence of the Delta variant.
It began to spread in the United States in late spring and has caused many more infections among those vaccinated than previous versions of the virus. The overwhelming majority of these emerging infections were mild, but they could potentially cause serious illness in the elderly and other vulnerable people.
Delta has also sparked new epidemics among the unvaccinated, and tens of thousands of them have died. Ultimately, the U.S. death toll from Covid in 2021 – over 475,000 – exceeded the 2020 toll. The increase is particularly tragic, epidemiologists say, as vaccine availability had made most of it. of these preventable deaths.
All in all, the year ending tonight has often been disappointing and gloomy.
In addition to the direct damage from Covid, disruptions to daily life – intended to slow the spread of the virus – have come at their own costs. Children fell behind in school and for many, isolation worsened their mental health. Adults also have a hard time; Americans’ blood pressure has risen, and drug overdoses have skyrocketed.
Even people who have avoided the worst damage of the pandemic are often fed up with it. And the latest variant, Omicron, has spiked cases again, to their highest levels yet, and raised the prospect that 2022 will be another year of pandemic purgatory.
At this point, it should be clear that there is no Covid guarantee. Perhaps future variants will emerge, even more dangerous than Omicron or Delta. But the most likely scenario is more optimistic, say many experts. As the New Year approaches, there are reasons to hope 2022 will turn out to be what people expected 2021 to be – the year Covid went from a pandemic to an endemic virus, not so different from the flu.
New evidence suggests that Omicron is definitely milder than previous versions of this coronavirus (either for intrinsic biological reasons or because of higher levels of population immunity). In South Africa and England, as well as New York, San Francisco and other parts of the United States, the number of hospitalizations is lower than doctors feared.
Omicron will always do terrible damage, especially among the millions of middle-aged and older Americans who are still unvaccinated, as well as the hundreds of millions of adults around the world who are not, due to the skepticism or unavailability of vaccines. Many hospitals are at risk of being overwhelmed in the coming weeks.
But when the current push starts to recede, it will likely have left some glimmers of hope. Omicron is so contagious that it will have infected a significant portion of the population, increasing the amount of immunity against Covid and helping to fight the virus.
Equally important, the world has more powerful weapons to fight Covid than there were just a few weeks ago: two new post-infection treatments, one from Merck and a more powerful one from Pfizer, which reduce the risk of hospitalization and death. With Pfizer’s treatment, the reduction is nearly 90 percent, according to early research trials.
All of this suggests that the United States could emerge from the Omicron wave significantly closer to the most realistic future Covid – a future in which it becomes an endemic disease that is a more normal part of daily life. He will always cause disease and death; a typical flu season kills an estimated 35,000 Americans, most of whom are older. For the foreseeable future, fighting Covid – through vaccination, treatment and research – will remain important.
But an endemic disease does not need to dominate life like a pandemic does. It doesn’t need to cause the kind of social isolation and public health issues that Covid has experienced over the past two years.
If the United States does reach that point in 2022 – as it seems likely – the next New Years Eve will be much more satisfying than this one.