It’s been more than two years of coronavirus chaos, where the pandemic has had a vice-like grip on the functioning of society. In these past 24 months, we have experienced rapid and drastic changes to our definition of normalcy, living, in reality, many previously considered science fiction. As the virus has mutated and spread, case numbers have risen and fallen in periodic surges. School and work-life have transitioned between digital and physical forms, and social distancing, mask-wearing, and vigorous hand washing have become commonplace. We have fully adjusted to a lifestyle designed to mitigate the spread of disease, and living by these standards has produced striking results in the decline of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID-19, and this has led to changes to many of the vigilant guidelines designed to keep us COVID-free (CDC Data Tracker). Unfortunately, as one way of life gains a sense of normalcy, it no longer serves us. Society and the virus are evolving in tandem, at rapid speeds. This means we need to be prepared to change our lifestyles yet again and stay informed on the most up-to-date changes both society and the disease face.
With case numbers steadily declining after the most recent surge of the omicron variant in January of 2022, mask mandates have gradually been lifted. In most counties, including Suffolk County, where BU resides, the risk of Covid is low, meaning mask use is not explicitly recommended by the CDC and becomes a matter of personal preference (CDC: Covid by County). The CDC now only urges masks to be worn in communities with a high risk of Covid, and in medium-risk communities, only high-risk individuals are advised to wear masks. However, the CDC also urges continued mask use on public transportation and will reevaluate this policy on April 18th (CDC: Mask Use). The large majority of Americans have finally earned the right to take a big, maskless sigh of relief.
Covid risk by county, green indicates low risk, yellow indicates medium risk, and red indicates high risk.
Boston University no longer requires masks to be used in most spaces on campus, excluding classrooms and transportation, in which masks will be required through the end of the semester (Back2BU). This change to mask use in educational settings has been mirrored and even amplified by the Massachusetts government as a whole, which no longer requires mask use in K-12 educational institutions or on school buses. Now, in Massachusetts, masks are only required in transportation settings (excluding K-12 buses), healthcare facilities, and prisons (mass.gov).
Based on this increased laxity of mask use, coupled with continually declining numbers, it would appear we have nearly made it through the pandemic. However, it is critical to remember the evolutionary nature of the microbiological arms race between humans and their infectious foe. As one variant of Covid becomes controlled and even vaccinated against, this creates pressure for a new variant to evolve mechanisms by which it can continue to infect new targets. A virus will stop at nothing to continue to survive and reproduce, and this fundamental tenet of biology has led several variants of Covid to evolve, from the Delta strain, which surged in September of 2021, to the Omicron variant, which reached its peak in January of 2022 (Becker’s Hospital Review).
Recently, a new variant of Covid, BA.2, has been noted as a variant of concern by the World Health Organization (WHO). This subvariant of omicron has quickly been making headlines. It has spread throughout the United States to become the dominant strain, accounting for 54.9% of new cases nationwide and 70% of new cases in the northeast (NPR). The new variant differs from previous strains in that it can spread up to 80% faster than Omicron, which has likely contributed to its rapid rise. In addition, BA.2 also has mutations in various proteins, including the spike protein. As vaccines target the spike protein, mutations in this region are potentially dangerous as they may affect the efficacy of vaccines. However, this is probably not the case in BA.2, and vaccination is still the single best thing a person can do to reduce the likelihood of severe Covid infection (CDC: Vaccines).
Although this sudden increase in case numbers may seem like a cause for concern, the newly appointed White House Covid response coordinator, Dr. Ashish Jha, urges the public to remain calm. Although the infection may be spreading, it is not leading to an increase in hospitalizations or deaths from Covid. This indicates that the level of community immunity vaccines provide is sufficient to prevent severe infection (NPR). Dr. Jha states, "Obviously, we want to keep infections down, but eliminating all infections is not the goal. The goal has to be to keep infections down and protect people from serious illness." With the emphasis placed on reducing the harm Covid causes, rather than its absolute prevalence, the more transmissible but less severe variant of BA.2 becomes less of a threat. However, as the disease evolves along with society, It may not ever be possible to exist in a world without Covid. Just as the world may gain immunity from one strain of the virus, a new variant is sure to arise; it is the nature of biology. Eradicating the disease is not feasible, but it is conceivable that the virus may evolve to cause less severe symptoms. We may soon view the virus the same way we view the flu or common cold: an inevitable seasonal infection but no real cause for concern.
We may see the reimplementation of mask mandates in areas where cases rise rapidly in response to these rising numbers. Philadelphia has already decided to reinstate its mandate beginning April 18th, and large cities in the Northeast like New York or Boston may follow suit. Reverting to these stricter guidelines may help mitigate any potential surge from the new BA.2 variant. While returning to wearing masks is likely the safest option in the face of this new variant, changes to mask requirements will probably be met with public outcry, as we have seen throughout the pandemic. (NPR)
Overall, after two years, we find ourselves sitting on the fringes of the pandemic, hovering between two contrasting definitions of normalcy: a lifestyle marked by quarantine behaviors and its maskless counterpart. As we recenter ourselves into the rhythm of maskless life – quaint smiles at passersby and big gulps of fresh air – we must not forget all the work and compliance it took to reach this point. Reckless behavior is sure to send society spiraling back into quarantine. Therefore, it is imperative to stay updated on all recommendations and vaccines and approach these newfound freedoms with caution. Though we may never return to the blissfully ignorant days preceding the pandemic, we may find peace in our new sense of normalcy and celebrate the unprecedented global effort it has taken to get there.