Friday, March 17, 2023

COVID-19, Three Years On

This month marks three years since the start of lockdowns in the United States for the COVID-19 pandemic. As I imagine is true for most people, few upheavals in my life have had such a profound and sustained impact than three years of the pandemic. The good news is that it seems to be receding to an endemic, and while the SARS-CoV-2 is still a threat to many, life is mostly getting back to some semblance of normal.

Looking back, the year 2020 began like most others.  In January, I traveled to Singapore, as I usually did in that month each year, to culminate an offering of the 10x10 course. Little did I realize that would be my last international trip for a year and a half. My final trip prior to the pandemic was a short jaunt to Salt Lake City to give Biomedical Informatics Grand Rounds at the University of Utah. By then, the people on flights and at airports were thinning out. I had decided right before leaving for Salt Lake City to cancel a planned trip to the annual HIMSS Conference in Orlando the following week. Within a few days, that conference was cancelled. I remember the flight back from Salt Lake City, wondering to myself how long it would be before I got on an airplane again. I never would have believed it would be about a year.

I still remember the dark, early days of the pandemic. Such a lockdown of society was unlike anything I had ever experienced, and our ignorance of the novel SARS-CoV-2 virus was unsettling. All of a sudden, work profoundly transformed from being based in the office to being at home. Fortunately the presence of video tools such as Zoom and WebEx, along with social media, enabled most of us to stay in touch with friends, family, and colleagues. I initially thought the lockdown would be much like the original SARS epidemic of 2003, lasting a few months. I never would have believed that mostly-remote work would continue to now, three years later.

After three years, the world is returning to some semblance of normal. In a few months, the COVID-19 emergency in the US will officially end. I am comfortable with this decision, although the lack of a pandemic does not mean that the threat of this virus or new ones that may emerge is not real. Just as we have ongoing risk of major killers such as cancer and heart disease, for which we can impact through public health measures, the risk of COVID-19 will continue, and the end of the public health emergency does not mean "COVID is over."

I prefer to get my information from medical journals and reputable experts. Recent perspective pieces in New England Journal of Medicine and Nature summarize the situation well. I have been a follower of Dr. Eric Topol's tweeting and now Substack during the pandemic, and a recent perspective from him is enlightening. And the Washington Post had a good op-ed asking a number of COVID-19 experts how they are adapting to the current situation.

My view is that now that COVID-19 is receding to endemic status, we can revisit our approaches to the virus. The virus will be with us going forward, and continue to be a major cause of death and other disability. But I am comfortable with moving to an individual risk assessment approach. I still take precautions. While I no longer routinely mask in public, including indoor settings, I always carry a mask and use it sometimes in crowded indoor settings. I always mask when someone else asks me to do so. I am up to date on vaccines, having had five, including the bivalent booster (as well as one mild natural infection in 2022).

Probably the saddest aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic is the politicization of public health. I get that there are trade-offs in the world between personal liberty and the public good. And I believe an honest re-assessment of what we thought we did right or wrong early in the pandemic is not a bad idea. Clearly we were flying blind in those dark early days. While I do not believe that the early lock-downs and mask requirements were unreasonable at the time, we could have an honest re-assessment now of what is the best approach. By the time token, we can never forget that over a million US lives have been lost and many more disrupted by the virus. Those who pushed unproven treatments and approaches like "let er rip" herd immunity strategies likewise need to called out for their wrong ways.

The threat of COVID-19 is still very real. It remains the third-leading cause of death in the US. It creates a substantial risk for those who are vulnerable, such as those who are immunocompromised or elderly. Data from the CDC and around the world show that while the vaccine does not eradicate the virus or completely prevent its transmission, it does reduce the risk of death and hospitalization, especially for those at most risk.

By the same token, I feel comfortable going mostly maskless, including on airplanes, going to the gym, and at conferences and other public venues. I know that I could again get infected by SARS-CoV-2, but I believe my risk of serious illness is small. I like to think of myself as a COVID "tweener," taking the virus seriously but comfortable returning to relatively normal living. I am ready to return to more aggressive protection should pandemic status recur.