The nature of our current debate on COVID-19 policy is perfectly captured by the response to D.C Mayor Muriel Bowser’s announcement last November that one of the nation’s strictest mask mandates is to end. A letter shared by D.C Councilmember Robert C. White Jr. signed by the majority of his colleagues urged the mayor to reverse her decision. It placed the District “ahead of the science,” the letter read, “continuing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control that still recommends that masking indoors is the safest way to protect everyone from COVID-19 exposure.” Furthermore, White said, “We have to center public health and minimize risk- especially for our youngest children who still aren’t vaccinated.”
The latest news out of D.C. reveals a snapshot between the disparate approaches on COVID-19 restrictions. On the one hand many are unwilling to loosen any for fear of further spread of the virus. Others, such as Bowser and many state governors throughout the nation (Youngkin anyone?) have a plan: encourage as many individuals as possible to get vaccinated, reduce risk to the best of our ability, restore personal liberty, and resume healthy behavior for civil society. Albeit, each is doing so with various degrees of heavy handedness, but for at least these policymakers, there is some semblance of direction.
On the approach of many others however, it should not be heresy to question where the goalposts are. Apparently our current moment is not satisfactory. While many places have reopened, some areas across the United States are still imposing mandates, curfews, many schools are still not in person, and children are still being masked. What needs to be done to end COVID-19 restrictions for good? No one really seems to know for sure. Mixed responses include universal vaccination, herd immunity, and more booster shots for the already vaccinated. If White had it his way, we should not remove any restrictions until a satisfactory number of children are vaccinated. Is this realistic?
Recent data and evidence would suggest that it is not. 87.3% of Americans over the age of 18 have received at least one dose of the vaccine, while that number is at 95% for people over the age of 65. The purpose of the vaccine was to prevent severe reactions and death. Evidence points to its effectiveness in this respect. The goal was never to prevent transmission as a possibility. It was to protect the most vulnerable populations.
What about children? They are simply not at risk. As noted by USA Today, of “the 73 million children in the U.S., fewer than 700 have died of COVID-19 during the course of the pandemic.” To put this in perspective, about 6,625,857 children were reported to have contracted COVID-19 over the course of the past two years. As reported at the state level, the mortality rate for this demographic is between 0.00%-0.03%. Research is pretty clear on the incredibly low risk of severe infection.
Neither is there strong evidence that higher vaccination rates mean lower cases of COVID-19. At the time I wrote the first draft of this article, the majority of new cases were in the North, where vaccination rates are very high. Most of these are among the unvaccinated, but it has also been well documented that even vaccinated individuals can get infected. Especially with Omicron, which at this point comprises the majority of new cases and results in far fewer hospitalizations/deaths. Though COVID-19 is overall on the decline as of late, it is still not going away anytime soon.
So at what point does society come back to a place of normalcy?
The arguments in favor continuing restrictions appeal to a sense of COVID-19 externality. You’ll hear that if we don’t impose policy x or y, then more people will potentially be fatally infected. But if vaccines are truly what people say they are, then the reality is we no longer need to impose such a grave, unqualified moral significance to current rates of infection. As if, other than treating those severely ill, the right thing to do is automatically impose more governmental regulations. There needs to be a point where we can say, “they know the risk, the option to reduce it is available, and we will let people be responsible with their lives.” Otherwise, society is going to live in nothing but perpetual fear every time new cases surge.
COVID-19 is a normal part of our lives now. Yes, it has wrought much pain, suffering, and heartbreak. It is certainly nothing to take lightly. But this reality does not mitigate our responsibility to act wisely in the face of changing circumstances. It is time we stop imposing lock-downs, mask mandates (especially for children!), curfews, and reopen schools nationwide. How much longer are we willing to tolerate heavy handed forms of satefyism at the cost of our children’s education, increased suicide and drug use, and a struggling economy? We shouldn’t any longer.
It is time to reassess our end-game.