A new stage in the pandemic: Cautious optimism

Like many Americans, Anthony Kellum is ready for the pandemic to be over. The Detroit-area real estate developer just wants to do usual things from his old life – attend baseball games, visit movie theaters, go out to dinner.

And he’s increasingly confident the usual may be within sight. Some extended family members, whom he largely hasn’t visited over the past year, have been vaccinated. He’s eager to be vaccinated himself, and he and his wife, Doreen, are optimistic enough that they’ve tentatively planned a summer family vacation.

“I just want to get back to normal,” he says.

But not everyone is sure the country has reached a COVID-19 inflection point. Vaccines aren’t yet available to everyone. Case counts have dived before, only to rise again. New variants are a possible danger. 

The U.S. recently passed the grim milestone of over 500,000 total deaths. And damage to the economy has taken a personal toll. Raemecca Evans lost her Cincinnati restaurant job early in the pandemic. She’s been unemployed since. “Normal” will mean going back to work, she says.

Biden, Warnock, and the resurgence of the liberal Christian

“I mean, it’s gotten better,” says Ms. Evans of the pandemic. But “it’s kind of touch-and-go, to me.”

Nearly one year after much of the nation abruptly shut down due to a little-understood virus, turning face masks into common attire and dousing the fires of the world’s largest economy, something new is emerging in America: a sense of cautious optimism.

The U.S. appears to be coming closer to control of the pandemic following a bleak winter, they say. But many experts warn that vigilance will still be necessary in the future. 

“I think we are at the beginning of the end, but not the end that everybody’s hoping for,” says Kenneth Bernard, an epidemiologist who ran the office on global health threats in the Clinton and second Bush White Houses.

A remarkable turnaround

The raw numbers have undergone a remarkable turnaround. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the daily number of new COVID-19 cases in the country peaked in early January at about 250,000 per day. As of late February, the rolling average had dropped to around 54,000 cases per day – its lowest level since mid-October. 

Deaths, which typically lag cases, have not fallen as fast. The seven-day rolling average of U.S. deaths was about 2,000 in late February, down from January’s peak of about 3,400, according to the CDC.

A number of interrelated factors have likely caused this decline, says Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

One is the passing of the holiday spikes caused by gatherings over Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. Another is a possible increase in wearing masks and adhering to social distancing, driven by the public’s realization that cases had risen to a very high level.

Since late December, the number of new cases among nursing home residents has fallen by 80%, coinciding with a vaccine rollout. That’s a much faster drop in cases than that experienced by the country as a whole.

Finally, the sheer number of Americans who have already had COVID-19 may be reducing the ability of the virus to spread in the general population, says Dr. Benjamin. While vaccinations have, as of late February, reached nearly 13% of the U.S. population, a much larger number of Americans, upwards of 35%, is estimated to have caught the virus at some point and developed resistance to a new infection.

Over the past year, America’s experience with the coronavirus has been like a roller coaster: spikes in caseloads, followed by plummets amid a tightening of restrictions. Then, as restrictions have eased, another rise.

That could happen again. America has a tendency to ease restrictions too soon, and shouldn’t repeat that mistake, says Dr. Benjamin.

But the more likely scenario is that the country is seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, he says. Public health authorities have a better handle on what kind of restrictions work. Medical facilities have a better understanding of the virus and treatments. The percentage of the population that has been vaccinated is quickly increasing. 

“Everything that we’re doing is finally working and kicking in,” Dr. Benjamin says.

From fear to hope in California

This late-winter turnaround has produced shoots of hope, which have been especially welcome in regions that have had severe outbreaks, such as Los Angeles.

In California, all the trend lines are moving in the right direction, according to some health officials. “We’ve come to the other side of this terrible surge,” declared Los Angeles County health director Barbara Ferrer this week.

Ms. Ferrer is cautiously optimistic about the future. Los Angeles County is lifting restrictions on youth sports and elementary schools, as coronavirus cases have fallen below the cutoff limits set in state health and safety guidelines.

Parents in Santa Clarita, a sprawling suburb in the north part of the county, are excited that in-person school resumed this week at Mountainview Elementary. The school is on a hybrid schedule, and is bringing in different grades over the next two weeks.

“I can feel we have turned a corner,” says Mandy Meeks from her black Jeep Cherokee, after dropping off her second grader, Jamison. School is one sign. Business is another, she says. As a restaurant manager, Ms. Meeks anticipates limited indoor dining will soon be added to outdoor dining.

Mark Kavin, parent of a first grader at Mountainview, is “happy to have some normalcy,” he says. He and his wife, who both work full time, had to bring in a babysitter to help their daughter with school via Zoom.

The pandemic is headed in the right direction, says Mr. Kavin, citing vaccines. But he figures “masks will be here for years to come.”

What does “over” mean?

Given current trends, when will the pandemic be over? In the context of the coronavirus, what does the word “over” even mean? 

If “over” is defined as the date when vaccines will be so widely available that anyone who wants one will have easy access, the time is fast approaching – perhaps faster than many people think. White House adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci has said that time could be mid-to-late May, or early June.

But there are many variables that could affect projections of when the risk of infections will fade. Dr. Benjamin notes that America is not an island. Many low-income countries have not started vaccinating yet, and their relatively higher number of new cases could increase the chances of a dangerous variant of the disease emerging. 

“We all want it to be over. And I think the news looks good,” says Dr. Bernard. “But news changes and I think we need to be careful.” 

“I’m going to head out this weekend”

No pandemic end is in sight, if “over” means forgotten. The coronavirus has been an overarching presence in a year that ranks as among the most tumultuous in American social and political history. It will be inextricably linked in memory with the protests of the Black Lives Matter movement, the stark partisanship of the 2020 presidential election, and the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol by a mob seeking to overturn that vote.

Brunswick, Georgia, is a long way from Washington, D.C. But Brunswick saw its own somber anniversary pass this week, one that coincides with the beginnings of the pandemic: the death in February of last year of a local runner, Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was killed by three white vigilantes who falsely believed he had committed a crime. 

For local resident Keion Walthour, that spasm of racial violence began a cycle of fear and dislocation that was then exacerbated by a virus that ripped through Georgia’s minority communities at disproportionate rates.

Social circles, says Mr. Walthour, have been broken up. Distancing and masks have hampered relationships and family events. And life, in many respects, has dwindled to a lot of time spent on the front stoop of his small house near a paper mill, entertaining a smattering of friends in the open air. 

Mr. Walthour had heard news reports that infection and death rates were falling across the country, perhaps auguring a return to normal. As a result, he has begun turning daydreams of travel into plans, for the first time in a year.

“It’s a change,” he says. “I’ve lived in fear for a long time. But I’m going to head out this weekend. I’m not thinking of going to New York or anything, nothing too far. Maybe Jacksonville, hit some of my favorite eating places.”

He chuckles, “At this point, anywhere but Brunswick.”

This article was written by Peter Grier with reporting by Nick Roll in Cincinnati, Noah Robertson in Alexandria, Virginia, Francine Kiefer in Santa Clarita, California, and Patrik Jonsson in Brunswick, Georgia.

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