Kuntzman: It’s time to start planning for a future with COVID-19

Caroline Kuntzman, Staff Writer

Since March 2020, life in the United States has undergone an enormous shift due to COVID-19. With public health policies such as mask mandates and social distancing changing many aspects of day-to-day life, the impact of the pandemic is clearly visible in American public spaces. 


As of August 2021, approximately 70% of American adults have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, including the Pfizer vaccine, which recently received full FDA approval for people at least 16 years old. It is plausible that this percentage will increase in the months to come, since a lack of confidence in vaccines is one of the most common reasons Americans have declined vaccinations. With a pediatric vaccine expected sometime in early- to mid- winter 2022, children under 12 may soon be able to be vaccinated as well. 


With that being said, vaccine hesitancy remains a significant challenge for public health. As of July 27, 11 states still had partial vaccination rates below 50%. Wyoming has the lowest vaccination rate, with the Wyoming Department of Health reporting that only 34.8% of the state’s population is vaccinated. Even among vulnerable groups such as seniors, vaccination rates remain far below the national average. The state reports that 62.1% of Wyoming seniors are vaccinated, compared to the Mayo Clinic’s reporting that 93.7% of 65- to 74-year-olds and 88.7% of people at least 75 years old are vaccinated nationwide. 


In the meantime, COVID-19 is changing. While vaccines remain an effective way to reduce the spread of COVID-19, with less than 1% of fully vaccinated people experiencing breakthrough infections, newly emerging strains of the virus—notably the Delta variant—have proven an obstacle to vaccine effectiveness. Due to slow vaccination rates, additional mutations are likely to take hold. 


More importantly, COVID-19 is not just infecting humans. A test on deer in Michigan conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that 67% of the deer in their sample had COVID-19 antibodies. Domestic animals, such as dogs and cats, are also susceptible to COVID-19. A sample of cats and dogs in households with people who had COVID-19 found that nearly 70% of house cats and over 40% of dogs had COVID-19 antibodies, a stark contrast to only 3% of stray cats.


The spread of COVID-19 in animals presents a significant challenge for eradication. Zoonotic diseases, or diseases capable of infecting both nonhuman animals and humans, are difficult to suppress. Even if human populations have high vaccination rates, zoonotic diseases can live on and mutate in nonhuman animals. Although oral vaccination campaigns for diseases such as rabies have helped reduce rates of zoonotic diseases among wildlife populations, most zoonotic diseases remain a threat to public health. 

COVID-19 is a global pandemic. Over 200 million people have been infected with it to date. Even if vaccine levels reach a point in the United States where herd immunity is possible, the reality of low vaccination rates abroad not only leaves people in low- and middle- income countries vulnerable to infection, but also increases the risk of generating new variants. Initiatives such as COVAX are working to facilitate equitable vaccine access, but global vaccination inequality remains significant. 


Due to the human and nonhuman reservoirs available to COVID-19, it shouldn’t be assumed at this time that COVID-19 can be eradicated in the United States regardless of how high vaccination rates may become. While some highly effective COVID-19 mitigation strategies, notably lockdowns, are not necessarily reasonable long-term solutions for preventing disease transmission—given the problems exacerbated by lockdown measures, such as rising rates of anxiety and depression, policymakers need to be prepared to keep other courses of action in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 


COVID-19 may necessitate reimagining everyday life for years to come and working towards a new normal rather than expecting a return to life before COVID-19. What exactly this new normal is will need to be a work in progress, depending on the conditions and challenges presented by COVID-19 at any given time. Still, the focus should be on learning to live with COVID-19 rather than expecting to eradicate it. Measures that would be used for an eradication-based approach, such as encouraging high vaccination rates, should still be implemented, as vaccines are a critical component of COVID-19 prevention. However, given the circumstances of the pandemic, rhetoric and planning for COVID-19 should focus on long-term disease management, not short-term changes with the likely distant goal of eradication.