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Our Opinion

Our Opinion: The tough but necessary steps toward a post-pandemic world

Virus Concentrations in Pittsfield Wastewater.png (copy)

The chart shows the concentrations of COVID-19 virus particles found in wastewater in the city of Pittsfield since early February. It shows increases detected in recent weeks, a finding that has historically predicted rising numbers of confirmed infections. 

The recent COVID-19 uptick presents a new test in adapting our risk assessment and management skills, such as they are.

Signs point to another rise in COVID-19 cases in Berkshires. Here’s the CDC’s advice

Berkshire County’s COVID transmission levels have been raised to “medium,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s due to rising new cases and a spike in virus detection in Pittsfield wastewater, a reliable predictor of future positive tests. The critical context, though, is that this is still well below previous surges, such as the one in January led by the omicron variant. Most importantly, hospitalizations appear to be staying down even as cases grow, due to a combination of increasing natural immunity, vaccinations and immunotherapy treatments.

That’s good news, even in light of rising cases. It appears to show that even if COVID (which will be with us forever in some form) makes infectious inroads, vaccines and our evolving immune systems will likely blunt its impact on our society, hopefully precluding anything close to the harrowing grip it previously had on our entire world.

If we should learn anything from the pandemic, it is epistemic humility; nothing is entirely certain and risk is never zero. These latest stats on the region’s COVID outlook do offer some optimism that we’re in or at least fast approaching a post-pandemic world where case upticks can and should be handled with risk models of a scope well below existential. For some, that will be understandably tough. The pandemic was long and devastating, and rising from the defensive crouch we were in for nearly two years is no simple ask.

Still, it was always an inevitability that eventually we’d have to evolve how we assess the risk of this virus from an invisible enemy that threatened millions and our very way of life to something more akin to a bad flu season. That latter formulation, no matter how accurate in the here and now, is bound to chafe many folks. The politicization at COVID’s outbreak led many, whether cynically or ignorantly, to inaccurately characterize COVID-19 as “just like the flu” when its novelty and infectiousness made it the most dangerous pandemic in more than a century.

That unnecessary polarization was costly then; we need not let it further derail the appropriate reaction to the state of COVID now. There will be an instinct to see every step back to a new normal through a knee-jerk or culture-war lens; some are currently applying one as the Biden administration suspends enforcement of its nationwide mask mandate for public transit after a U.S. District Court judge in Florida struck it down. This lens should be resisted, though, as Joe Biden himself appears to be modeling in the wake of the decision. The president on Tuesday told reporters in New Hampshire that whether Americans wear a mask is “up to them.”

Given COVID’s current trajectory, that simple rule seems like the most reasonable one at the moment. Yes, that is counter to what many credentialed experts said two years ago; the world changes, as do data and risks. Yes, there are those who are immunocompromised or otherwise still at higher risk than the average American who still deserve some consideration; if they opt for an extra layer of protection through a mask, social distancing or otherwise, that’s a choice appropriately made by those individuals. The CDC appears to agree that this should largely be left up to those at high risk of severe illness, suggesting they “consider wearing a mask indoors in public and taking additional precautions.” And yes, COVID is not technically “over” or “gone,” like nearly every other coronavirus in recent human history.

All this being true, we still must realistically adapt our management models. For those who wish to follow the science, that should include keeping up to date on data that suggest masking, especially with cloth or other nonmedical grade material, produces at best weak effects as a COVID-curbing practice.

Do municipal boards still meeting remotely really need to keep preventing their constituents from addressing their local officials in person? Do Berkshire theaters and venues really need vaccination requirements and mandatory universal masking? We think the answer to these questions is no, and at this stage these policies present tangible downsides with little to no demonstrable upsides.

This gradual adjustment to a post-pandemic world was always going to be difficult. That doesn’t mean we should put off the necessary steps to get there or deny a realistic assessment of where we are in the process of climbing out from under COVID.

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