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Columnists

Defeating the COVID-19 Pandemic

March 8, 2021

Defeat of the COVID-19 pandemic is at hand. Epidemiologists who have consistently accurately assessed the virus’ progress estimate that it is possible for it to significantly wither by early autumn with a new normal established by Christmas. The means for accomplishing this are in place.

A great threat to delaying eradication of the virus are state governments such as those in Texas and Mississippi that have reopened their economies without restrictions of any kind. That is a recipe for prolonging the pandemic and all its consequences. Such thoughtless policies also misdirect that sector of the American public that does not realize herd immunity may be at hand but does not yet exist.

On the positive side, the federal government has made combating the pandemic a top priority. It strongly supports the conclusions of scientists that significant control of the disease is achieved by masking, social distancing, washing one’s hands, and similar measures. If those precautions remain in place, the new availability of anti-viral vaccinations can be the knock-out punch.

Heath measures now in place already have greatly reduced the skyrocketing infection rates that followed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s festivities marked by disregard for social distancing. At the height of that second COVID-19 wave, death rates hit a staggering 4,000 per day. That number has now been halved, an unacceptable toll but a dramatic downward trend to a brighter future.

Most Americans will not have been vaccinated until April at the earliest, so lowering our guard now leaves the door open for a resurgence of the pandemic. We are not in the final stages of defeating COVID-19 but in a crucial transition period. That transition doesn’t mean we cannot modify our behavior, but we just must do so with the understanding we are in a gray zone. Unfortunately, the understandable immediate impulse is for the public to jump the gun, reopening the economy in a rash manner that does not reflect national and local existential realities

An immediate challenge for Orthodox Greek-Americans will be how to celebrate Easter. This might be a year when it is best to forgo the usual open houses and big dinners in favor of smaller family gatherings with participants limited to the vaccinated. Attending crowded Easter services is problematic. Such gatherings are COVID-19 hotbeds. The faithful may believe that ecclesiastic events are protected by Divine will, but the grim reality is that priests and even patriarchs have succumbed to the virus.

The rush to re-assert normalcy also has led to the likelihood that sports arenas, amusement parks, cruise ships, and the like will soon reopen. Given the pandemic’s continuing presence, surely it would be wiser to wait a few more months before patronizing such obvious breeding grounds for infections. Attending a movie house, on the other hand, is credible if the theater is large enough for social distancing and one is willing to wear a mask.

The warming weather will facilitate outdoor dining which proved relatively safe last summer. More indoor dining is also possible if the restaurant enforces social distancing and other defensive measures. Attempts to reopen at full capacity with minimal safeguards is another matter. Such carelessness risks fostering more outbreaks. We would then be forced to renew dreaded lockdowns, which in turn could cause many already financially stressed enterprises to permanently close.

A particularly vexing problem is whether to reopen public schools and universities. Most studies indicate that public schools are not infection centers. Thus, many schools, especially in regions with low infections, could be reopened. How to reopen schools in ‘hot’ zones is harder to determine. Local factors should be paramount. A wise precaution in any return to in-class instruction would be to have all teachers vaccinated beforehand.

A significant section of university students has proven prone to immature behavior. Raucous fraternity parties, carefree spring breaks to faraway beaches, and jammed campus bars have been commonplace. College towns with low infection rates have seen their infection rates soar as soon as on-campus instruction was resumed. A significant number of universities have decided that a prudent response is to retain a few more months of distance learning. Universities that insist on reopening immediately need to have their decisions monitored by local or state governments.

The federal government, scientists, and pharmaceutical companies have created a reasonable pathway to normalcy. But until herd immunity is achieved, masking, social distancing, washing one’s hands, and other preventative behavior need to be continued. Enterprises can begin to reopen but at a modest pace that allows time to deal with unforeseen outbreaks and other unexpected problems. Allowing irresponsible governors and Americans who lack common sense to delay our ending a murderous pandemic would be tragic.

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