Danish social scientist Michael Bang Petersen of Aarhus University told me that familiarity with Covid is changing people’s attitudes. Many stopped fearing the virus once they contracted it and recovered. In Denmark, he said, studies show that 80% of the population has been infected. Here in the US, a similar study showed around 60% had Covid last February – before the latest wave started.
And people are inspired by those around them. Social cues are really important, he said, so it’s really hard to stay on your toes when others return to normal. Behavior can change in cascade. People wonder why they should care if no one else does. “It’s straight out of the basic psychology of collective action,” Bang Petersen said.
Of course, some people are still cautious and still haven’t caught Covid, like epidemiologist Michael Osterholm of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.
He wears an N95 mask in public, limits his social contacts, sometimes asks customers to test first and avoids restaurants. “There is probably more transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in the last 30 days than there was in any 30-day period of the entire pandemic,” he said.
He admits this is based on his own anecdotal observations. The important point is that no one has a good idea of how many cases are happening because we only see a fraction of the tests that have been done. Many people take the test at home, and others may not at all.
And that means it’s hard to adapt our behavior to the situation — as public health officials have urged us to do in previous waves. Osterholm added that compared to previous outbreaks, there are relatively few deaths this time, so the death rate is approaching what people are used to seeing with the flu. “We don’t really know for sure how to act,” Osterholm said. We were never expected to change our daily life because of the flu. But all that could change again if the next variant is more dangerous.
Reporters at a Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health press briefing this week wanted to know if the pandemic was over. The answer, given by Tom Inglesby, MD, director of the Center for Health Security, was no. The other critical question was whether it still made sense to try to reduce cases. Inglesby said yes – but refrained from recommending universal masking or social distancing. He stressed ventilation, which could suppress large-spread events, while ensuring high-quality masks are available for those who want them.
Bang Petersen said that going forward, public health authorities must recognize that these and other pandemic restrictions were costly, and not just in economic or educational terms. “We know from research that social isolation is something that has a number of costs in terms of well-being.” It is bad for our mental and physical health. And the constant wearing of the mask isolates. It is difficult to hear, to connect, to communicate with others.
This is a point that often escapes scientists and public health experts. The fact that people are socializing again, without masks, does not mean that they have stopped caring about their health or the health of older and more vulnerable people. Socializing for many people is not something frivolous. It is vital for their mental health.
So there is hope for a more cohesive future, Bang Petersen said, as long as public health officials consider the social and emotional costs and only impose rules or recommendations that have substantial scientific benefit. . This means pushing for better ventilation in buildings, creating more compelling reminder campaigns and issuing clearer guidelines to help the elderly and most vulnerable avoid unnecessary risks. And be prepared for future variants – continuing to do the genetic sequencing needed to find them and planning action should something more deadly arise.
The end of the pandemic is not playing out in the jubilant way it was supposed to have last year when the White House planned to declare independence from Covid on July 4.
“I think people are just psychologically done with Covid,” Osterhom said. “If you think back to the experience of 1918… In 1918 and 1919, there were several waves, it was not just 1918. And people were completely respecting public health recommendations, limiting public gatherings, etc. . In the spring of 1920, when he just passed a second year, people said, “Ah, forget it, you know, we’re going to move on.”
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering science. She hosts the “Follow the Science” podcast.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion