The Perfect Enemy | Column: Don’t expect the COVID-19 political split to go away with coronavirus in ‘endemic’ stage - The San Diego Union-Tribune
May 27, 2022

Column: Don’t expect the COVID-19 political split to go away with coronavirus in ‘endemic’ stage – The San Diego Union-Tribune

Column: Don’t expect the COVID-19 political split to go away with coronavirus in ‘endemic’ stage  The San Diego Union-Tribune

Read Time:5 Minute

Way back in 2020, some people stuck at home fantasized on social media about the fun things they would do when the coronavirus pandemic ended — even about what they would wear — as if a light would switch on at some point.

That seems like a lifetime ago.

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There is no magical moment, just a gradual, balky transition to a more relaxed state of vigilance that, depending on new variants and possible surges, could be temporary.

So it seemed a bit anticlimactic when California officially shifted from the pandemic status to an endemic approach.

Gov. Gavin Newsom made that call, having already softened mask mandates. Some critics accused him of making a political decision. Public opinion certainly brought pressure to loosening things up, but that had been the case for a while. Newsom didn’t act until it was clear the drop in COVID-19 caseloads and hospitalizations was a trend, not a blip.

The determination that COVID-19 is now endemic suggests that the virus continues to exist in the state — and remains dangerous — but can be managed. The World Health Organization declared the outbreak a pandemic in March 2020 when the disease was growing exponentially and spreading across the globe.

There’s been some confusion about all this. Even Newsom said it’s not necessarily over.

“This pandemic won’t have a defined end. There is no finish line,” he said on Feb. 17 as he announced the shift.

With coronavirus on the wane, it would be nice to think the harsh divisions exposed during the course of the outbreak also will subside.

It might be best to hold on to that thought for a while. As long as mandates exists, there will be protests. Masks are still required in various public and private buildings and on public transportation — notably airliners, which have experienced high-profile disputes over masks that at times turned violent. Many governments and businesses require their employees to be vaccinated.

Some parent groups and school board members are insisting that the state should drop the indoor mask mandate for schoolchildren. The Rancho Santa Fe School District last week decided to make masks optional, in defiance of the state mandate, as Kristen Taketa of The San Diego Union-Tribune reported.

Other districts are struggling to abide by the state rules in the face of anti-mask protests.

The San Diego Unified School District, meanwhile, has pushed back its vaccine mandate for students, as a lawsuit challenging the policy is on appeal.

Nevertheless, opinion polls show mask and vaccine mandates have had continuous majority support in California, despite the louder minority that opposes them — which can skew public perception.

A survey by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies showed nearly two-thirds of California voters, and a majority of parents, backed mask and vaccine mandates in K-12 schools.

Unless courts intervene, some vaccine mandates for schools, governments and businesses aren’t going anywhere.

Mask mandates are a different story. So, how will people behave as mask requirements fall away? Will we end up with mostly vaccinated people continuing to wear masks frequently, while the unvaccinated don’t — the opposite of what should happen?

Or will those people, vaccinated or not, who agreed that masks help slow the spread of COVID-19 simply feel more comfortable — or even forgetful — going without as they see more people not wearing them?

Will some people, particularly those who are immunocompromised, be less willing to go to public places?

There are other uncertainties. “Dropping masks could have an unintended side effect: the return of sniffles and stomach bugs,” said The Boston Globe, quoting doctors predicting a resurgence of non-COVID infections this spring.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday loosened its recommendation for wearing masks indoors. The CDC had been recommending people in areas with substantial levels of transmission — most of the country — wear masks indoors. The new community-level recommendation is based on three metrics: hospitalizations, hospital capacity and level of new cases.

The CDC lists San Diego as a high-level county and recommends masks continue to be worn indoors. Other high-level counties in California are Los Angeles, Fresno and Kern.

Some experts have been urging relaxed mask mandates for weeks, while others say it’s still too early.

People are tired of wearing masks and increasingly question why they’re necessary as they see that the infection risk and severity has declined. One theory holds that easing up when cases and hospitalizations are down could build trust so if things get hot again, people will be more game to put them back on.

That notion probably doesn’t apply to the many people who refused to mask up even during the depths of the pandemic.

But a lot has changed since those dark days. Development of vaccines was the big one — and more than 80 percent of eligible San Diego County residents are fully vaccinated.

Individual testing has improved, and the monitoring of sewage to detect the virus may prove to be a vital early-warning system of coming surges.

The pressure, or the lack thereof on hospitals, will continue to be a key barometer of whether more public restrictions will be implemented. The various moves in the past to shut down public activity was mostly about “flattening the curve” of infections to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed. If medical staffing and hospital capacity needs can be foreseen in advance, that could go a long way toward warding off tougher mandates.

The hope is to jump on a virus hot spot early before it turns into a raging wildfire. Inherent in this strategy is an acknowledgement these fires may never be extinguished entirely.

There are plenty of unknowns, of course, such as whether vaccination research can keep up with mutating viruses.

California and the rest of the nation will deal with that as it comes. For now, it seems the order of the day is to move on from the pandemic. Though some mandates remain, there are more choices available without having to violate them.

We may be facing a new reality after the “new normal” of the pandemic. But the expectations of returning to a pre-COVID normal have to be held in check.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t break out that sharp-looking outfit. But keep a mask handy.

Tweet of the Week

Goes to Steve Herman (@W7VOA) of Voice of America.

“Reporter’s Q: Why doesn’t (Biden) want to speak with Putin right now?

“Press Secretary Jen Psaki: Because he’s invading a sovereign country.”

Staff writer Paul Sisson contributed to this column.