Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla told CNBC reporters last week that recipients of his firm’s COVID-19 vaccine were “likely” to need a booster shot after six to 12 months, and they may need to be immunized annually after that. “I guess we should hold off on getting our vaccination cards laminated,” my wife, a recipient of two Pfizer/BioNTech’s shots, observed. But why?
In the five weeks that have passed since our second shot, neither of us has ever had to produce the document that allegedly proves our vaccination status. No airport security agent, no government official, and no private enterprise has taken the slightest interest in our relative immunity. And why should they? What special status does this document convey? What doors does it open that would otherwise remain closed?
Early this month, the world of political commentary indulged itself in an academic debate around the prospect of “vaccine passports,” about which every thoughtful person should be at least a little conflicted.
The potential for such a system to be used punitively against people who, through accident and misfortune rather than indifference, fail to satisfy the criteria necessary to secure such a document should trouble anyone with a healthy mistrust of social stratification. But there have to be some incentives to vaccinate yourself beyond all but ensuring that you will no longer represent a vector for viral transmission. Incentives are always preferable to coercive inducements by government mandate.
But this important conversation remains mostly the province of scholarly circles. Public health officials and policymakers primarily concern themselves with reducing COVID transmissibility to a negligible rate. Thus, they are focused not on the socially responsible but everyone else.
“We’re almost there,” figures like Dr. Anthony Fauci say with metronomic regularity. But where is “there?” To listen to some elected officials, you could be forgiven for concluding that our ultimate destination will not appreciably differ from the journey.
“SARS-CoV-2, protean and elusive as it is, may become our permanent enemy, like the flu but worse,” Bloomberg opinion contributor Andreas Kluth determined. “If this is the evolutionary trajectory of SARS-CoV-2, we’re in for seemingly endless cycles of outbreaks and remissions, social restrictions and relaxations, lockdowns and re-openings.”
One way—perhaps the easiest way—to avoid becoming trapped in such a cycle would be to make permanent the extraordinary restrictions imposed on the public at the outset of the pandemic. And that’s exactly what the states governed by more risk-averse politicians are doing.
“While the end of this pandemic is finally in sight, the virus is still spreading,” said Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam in January, “and now is not the time to let up on preventative measures.” That statement preceded the signing of an executive order making Virginia the first state in the nation to make COVID-related mitigation strategies a feature of the state’s social compact. Along with standards that ensure proper training and access to things like hand sanitizer, the measure indefinitely extends regulations that compel public-sector employees to mask up.
Michigan followed suit. “Under the draft rules, a gym, bowling alley, or other covered facility that is full of vaccinated customers would still have to require its patrons to wear face masks,” the Michigan-based outlet Capital & Confidential reported of the state’s now indefinite COVID restrictions. “Also, under the proposed rules, fans at sporting events would have to wear masks.” All Michigan businesses must ensure that their employees are masked when they are within six feet of another individual, and they are obliged to have a “COVID-19 safety coordinator” on staff.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” said Oregon’s administrator for the state’s Occupational Health and Safety department, Michael Wood. That’s why the state is moving to implement a “permanent” rule to prevent pandemic restrictions from expiring. Those regulations would extend masking requirements, which presently apply to all residents unless they are in their own homes or vehicles or are doing things that make masking unfeasible (such as “sleeping,” “eating or drinking,” or “taking a shower”). But Oregon’s rules also include stipulations that even the Associated Press called “arcane,” including workplace sanitation protocols and ventilation and air-flow standards.
When will these restrictions disappear? According to the state of Michigan, it would be inappropriate even to consider such a thing until 70 percent of the state is fully vaccinated—all but the entirety of the state’s adult population. At least the Great Lakes State gave us a number; Oregon, for example, couldn’t even commit to such specificity.
But what if we never achieve that level of vaccination? With the news that being “fully vaccinated” will involve future boosts, what if the very definition of what constitutes immunity becomes blurred? And what if case rates remain persistently high even as the virus’s lethality is reduced to the point of insignificance?
Few even dare to entertain such questions, much less the consequences of allowing this bureaucratic inertia to accumulate momentum. Rather, the path of least resistance is to embrace what New York Times opinion writer David Leonhardt called a “culture of safety,” which involves perpetual masking even if “the medical benefits are tiny.”
If COVID-19 is going to become our “permanent enemy,” our perceptions of it must change. All but the most neurotic can compartmentalize the negligible but not inconsequential risks associated with taking a drive, going for a swim, drinking alcohol, or eating uncooked shellfish. With half the adult population now at least partly immunized and with vaccines available to all adults, COVID will likewise soon present a similarly modest risk. Elected officials will soon have to substitute the public’s prudent risk aversion with mandates and policing, as the inoculated public will rightly determine that their relative exposure to risk is trivial.
That’s the path we’re on unless someone bucks this trend, which is why it was heartening to hear Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis savage the pieties of the pandemic. Armed with the data that suggests “breakthrough” COVID cases in the fully immunized are vanishingly rare, DeSantis informed the vaccinated public to go about their lives. Moreover, he mocked those who believe the public is served by theatrics, like fully immunized public officials who think wearing two masks and maintaining a nautical mile’s distance from their nearest interlocutor is anything other than hysterical.
The community of professional scoffers heaped the usual scorn on DeSantis, but he’s right. What’s more, provisioning the immunized public with something approximating a reward for their socially responsible behavior will do more than all the scolding in the world to keep vaccination rates high as we approach the point of diminishing demand.
For all the talk of being “almost there,” those who think this kind of coaching is effective are rarely willing to say what “there” will look like. Like Zeno’s paradox, maybe “there” is an unreachable destination. Or maybe, we’re “there” already.