The Perfect Enemy | What Does It Mean to Care About COVID Anymore?
December 1, 2022
Read Time:6 Minute

After nearly three years of constantly thinking about COVID, it’s alarming how easily I can stop. The truth is, as a healthy, vaxxed-to-the-brim young person who has already had COVID, the pandemic now often feels more like an abstraction than a crisis. My perception of personal risk has dropped in recent months, as has my stamina for precautions. I still care about COVID, but I also eat in crowded cafés and go mask-free at parties.

Heading into the third pandemic winter, things have changed. Most Americans seem to have tuned out COVID. Precautions have virtually disappeared; except for in the deepest-blue cities, wearing a mask is, well, weird. Reported cases are way down since the spring and summer, but perhaps the biggest reason for America’s behavioral let-up is that much of the country sees COVID as a minor nuisance, no more bothersome than a cold or the flu.

And to a certain degree, they’re right: Most healthy, working-age adults who are up-to-date on their vaccinations won’t get severely ill—especially now that antivirals such as Paxlovid are available. Other treatments can help if a patient does get very sick. “People who are vaccinated and relatively healthy who are getting COVID are not getting that sick,” Lisa Lee, an epidemiologist at Virginia Tech, told me. “And so people are thinking, Wow, I’ve had COVID. It wasn’t that bad. I don’t really care anymore.”

Still, there are many reasons to continue caring about COVID. About 300 people are still dying every day; COVID is on track to be the third-leading cause of death in the U.S. for the third year running. The prospect of developing long COVID is real and terrifying, as are mounting concerns about reinfections. But admittedly, these sometimes manifest in my mind as a dull, omnipresent horror, not an urgent affront. Continuing to care about COVID while also loosening up behaviors is an uncomfortable position to be in. Most of the time, I just try to ignore the guilt gnawing at my brain. At this point, when so few people feel that the potential benefit of dodging an infection is worth the inconvenience of precautions, what does it even mean to care about COVID?

In an ideal epidemiological scenario, everyone would willingly deploy the full arsenal of COVID precautions, such as masking and forgoing crowded indoor activities, especially during waves. But that kind of all-out response no longer makes sense. “It’s probably not realistic to expect people to take precautions every time, perpetually, or even every winter or fall, unless there is a particularly concerning reason to do that,” Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Brown University, told me.

But, now more than ever, we must remember that COVID is not just a personal threat but a community one. For older and immunocompromised people, the risks are still significant. For example, people over 50 account for 93 percent of COVID-related deaths in the U.S., even though they represent just 35.7 percent of the population. As long as the death rate remains as high as it is, caring about COVID should mean orienting precautions to protect them. This idea has been around since the pandemic began, but its prominence faded as Americans put their personal health first. “If you’re otherwise healthy, it’s so easy just to think about yourself,” Lee said. “We have to think very carefully about that other part of infectious disease, which is the part where we can potentially hurt other people.”

Orienting behavior in this way gives low-risk people a way to care about COVID that doesn’t entail constant masking or skipping all indoor activities: They can relax when they know they aren’t going to encounter vulnerable people. Like the productivity adage “work smarter, not harder,” this perspective allows people to take precautions strategically, not always. In practice, all it takes is some foresight. If you don’t live with vulnerable people, make it second nature to ask: Will I be seeing vulnerable people anytime soon? If the answer is no, do whatever you’re comfortable with given your own risk. If you are a healthy 30-something who lives alone, going to a Friendsgiving with other people your age is different from spending Thanksgiving dinner with parents and grandparents.

If you will be seeing someone vulnerable, the most straightforward way to avoid giving them COVID is to avoid getting infected yourself, which means wearing a good mask in public settings and minimizing your interactions with others the week before, in what some experts have called a “mini-quarantine.” Not everyone has that luxury: Parents, for example, have to send their kids to school.

Spontaneous interactions with vulnerable people are trickier to plan for, but they follow the same principle. On a crowded bus, for example, “there’s no question that if you’re close enough to someone who could be hurt by getting COVID and you could have it, then, yeah, a mask is the way to go,” Lee said. Of course, it isn’t always possible to know when someone is high-risk; young people, too, can be medically vulnerable. There’s no clear guidance for those situations, but remaining cautious doesn’t require much effort. “Carry a mask with you,” Lee said. “It’s not a big lift.”

Get boosted—if not for yourself, then for them. Just 11.3 percent of eligible Americans have gotten the latest, bivalent shot, which potentially reduces your chances of getting COVID and passing it along. It also means getting tested, so you know when you’re infectious, and being aware of respiratory symptoms—of any kind. Alongside COVID, the flu and RSV are putting many people in the hospital, especially the very young and the very old. No matter how low your personal risk, if you have symptoms, avoiding transmission is crucial. “A reasonable thing to prioritize is: If you have symptoms, take care to prevent it from spreading,” Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, told me.

As we move away from a personal approach to COVID, we have an opportunity to expand the idea of what caring looks like. Low-risk people can, and should, take an active role in bolstering the protection of vulnerable people they know. In practical terms, this means ensuring that people in your life who are over 50—especially those over 65—are boosted and have a plan to get Paxlovid if they fall sick, Nuzzo said. “I think our biggest problem right now is that not everybody has enough access to the tools, and that’s a place where people can help.” She noted that she is particularly concerned about older people who struggle to book vaccine appointments online. Caring “doesn’t mean abstaining, per se. It means facilitating. It means enabling and helping people in your community.” This holiday season, caring could mean sitting down at a computer to make Grandma’s booster appointment, or driving her to the drugstore to get it.

If you have lost your motivation to care about COVID, you might find it in the people you love. I didn’t feel a personal need to wear a mask at the concert I attended yesterday, but I did it because I don’t want to accidentally infect my partner’s 94-year-old grandfather when I see him next week. To have this experience of the pandemic is a privilege. Many don’t have the option to stop caring, even for a moment.

Barring another Omicron-esque event, we thankfully won’t ever return to a moment where Americans obsess over COVID en masse. But this virus isn’t going away, so we can’t escape having a population that is split between the high-risk minority and the low-risk majority. Rethinking what it means to care allows for a more nuanced and liveable idea of what responsible behavior looks like. Right now, Nuzzo told me, the language we use to describe one’s position on COVID is “black-and-white, absolutist—you either care or you don’t.” There is space between those extremes. At least for now, it’s the only way to compromise between the world we have and the world we want.