Thursday, March 24, 2022

Hope springs for near-normal times -- again -- March 24, 2022 column


We attended a concert last Saturday. The Alexandria Symphony Orchestra performed in a nearby church, and we walked over with neighbors on a mild spring evening.

It seemed like the Before Times – except that nearly everyone at the sold-out event wore masks and was supposed to be fully vaccinated.

I tried to remember the last time I’d sat in a room full of people, listening to live music – or, for that matter, in a church. The coronavirus robbed us of so many shared experiences we once took for granted.

Bach and Vivaldi are good for whatever ails, and the Ukrainian folk song the orchestra added to the program was haunting. I blinked back tears.

After two years of isolation, cancellation, fear and death, people are venturing out again. Concerts, festivals, sports and spring break travel are back. Thousands of maskless visitors swarm the Tidal Basin in Washington to enjoy the cherry blossoms.

And yet, while Putin’s vicious war in Ukraine has kicked the pandemic off the front page, the pandemic is not finished with us yet.

The orchestra’s website carries this dose of reality for concert attendees: “You understand that you may contract the virus . . . you agree that you understand the risks of COVID-19 exposure, the potential consequences of exposure, and you voluntarily assume the risks of attendance.”

Besides that, enjoy the show.

The good news is COVID-19 cases have declined significantly in the United States, although about 1,000 people every day die of the insidious disease. Most at risk of hospitalization and death remain the unvaccinated.

 With cases low and people out and about, it feels like the hopeful days of last spring, when President Joe Biden proclaimed a “summer of freedom.” Prematurely. Summer brought the deadly Delta variant. Then came Omicron.

Today, about 35% of new coronavirus cases in the United States are attributed to the new, highly transmissible Omicron subvariant known as BA.2, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It seems to cause less severe illness than previous strains, and vaccinations and boosters help immunity, although their effectiveness does wane.

We’ve not yet seen a surge in BA.2 cases as is occurring in Europe, and it’s not certain we will. The World Health Organization Tuesday blamed the increase in countries like Britain, France, Germany and Italy on their lifting COVID restrictions too “brutally.”

Most places here have also ditched mask requirements, and social distancing is mostly a memory. High-profile positive COVID-19 tests make news: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, second gentleman Doug Emhoff and White House press secretary Jen Psaki, among others.

Almost everyone I know has -- or has had -- COVID-19. Thankfully, their cases have been mild. No one can predict what mutations lie ahead or how they’ll affect us in the moment or later.

The Biden administration wants Congress to approve $22.5 billion in emergency COVID funds to purchase more vaccines and treatments. A second booster for those over 65 may be available this spring, but the administration says it lacks funds to stockpile enough boosters and treatments for everyone, should they be needed in a fall surge.

Republicans contend unspent, previously allocated COVID relief funds should be used first. The administration says it is difficult to redirect such funds.

Each person can order free, at-home COVID tests online. A household is eligible to receive two sets of four tests. Check out

Former CDC director Tom Frieden wrote an essay in The New York Times Tuesday titled, “The Next Covid Wave Is Probably on Its Way,” arguing we should use this lull to prepare.

First and foremost, get vaccinated and boosted. Some 60% of Americans are not up to date on their COVID vaccinations. That’s 15 million seniors at higher risk.

If you are older, have an impaired immune system, or are around people who do, wear a good, well-fitting mask, such as an N95, Frieden advises. In addition, communities should also monitor for coronavirus in wastewater, as they do for polio and other diseases, to detect outbreaks sooner and stop the spread.

“For now, most of us can enjoy the warm spring sun on our unmasked faces. But we can also do a lot more to control COVID,” Frieden writes. “How we play it will determine what happens next.”

Take care.

©2022 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


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