Commentary, COVID-19

The end of the emergency

When I first heard that President Biden was going to announce the end of the COVID-19 state of emergency, I was not happy.  I was similarly uncomfortable about my employer lifting mask and test mandates.  Hospitalization and death rates were still very high, in the United States and worldwide.  They could have stayed high, and the end of the state of emergency would have been a disaster.  Fortunately, they didn’t, so the emergency does seem to be ending, for now at least, in the United States.

Death rates are now at their lowest since agencies started reporting numbers, in my hometown of New York, across the United States and worldwide.  Hospitalization rates are also at their lowest since the hospitals first started filling up.

There’s even more good news: the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hosts a web page called RESP-NET that allows you to compare current rates of hospitalization for SARS-COV2, influenza and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), from the current “season” (October through May) with rates from previous seasons going back to 2018-2019.

In the week of March 11 of this year, RESP-NET shows that the combined hospitalization rate for all three dropped below the peak combined rate for flu and RSV in 2018-2019.  Hospitalization rates for all three respiratory diseases have continued to drop since then.  If that trend continues, we could wind up the way we ended flu seasons in previous years, with hospitalization rates below 4 people per million per day.

We did get close to those hospitalization rates in June of 2021 and April of 2022, but in each of those cases there was a new wave of COVID right after that.  We have to be vigilant, and we have to be prepared to reinstitute emergency procedures if the hospitalization numbers start rising again.

I’m pleased to say that my family and I are starting to wind down some of our own state of emergency, which we’ve maintained since our government started loosening restrictions.  Until this week we have tried to wear masks in indoor public spaces whenever possible.  With very limited exceptions, we have not eaten in indoor public spaces, and we have avoided vocal and wind instrument performances, and anywhere there are likely to be large numbers of unmasked people.

A trio of jazz performance students (singing, guitar and upright bass) perform at a staff party at the New School, May 4, 2023

From now on we will start dropping some of these precautions.  We have stopped wearing masks in our building hallways, and yesterday I attended a social event at work where there was food and live music.  We plan on attending more events, and traveling more.  I plan on organizing in-person karaoke events.

We are in no rush to get back to normalcy.  My mother is 84 years old and has multiple risk factors,  The rest of us have health issues which make us a bit more vulnerable than the average American.  We’ve read that airplanes are particularly high transmission sites, especially when on the ground.  And we like eating outdoors!

We also want to minimize our involvement in spreading COVID.  There are still billions of unvaccinated and under-vaccinated people.  New York is a global port city, and we regularly encounter people from all over the United States and the world.  On Monday I had breakfast with cousins from Georgia who were leaving on a transatlantic cruise.  My mother has several Medicaid-supplied home health aides, most of whom are from different countries all over the world, and who travel home periodically to visit family.

My family and I live in the epicenter of the first COVID outbreak in Spring 2020, and we saw how it hit our poorer, immigrant, nonwhite neighbors harder than us and our more privileged neighbors.  I also have several friends who are immunocompromised in various ways, and who have seen their lives restricted because others refuse to make spaces and events safe for them.

I thought back to times when I had upper respiratory infections before COVID.  Nobody ever suggested wearing a mask or eating outdoors when I was sick, and if people talked about staying home, it was usually for my own recuperation.  I have memories of sneezing on the subway, coughing in restaurants, and even singing karaoke while battling a sinus infection.

The author wearing a KN95 mask on a Long Island Railroad train.  The destination sign reads "Grand Central."

I’ve decided that in the future I want to be more careful about spreading infectious diseases, particularly influenza, colds and of course COVID.  I plan on doing the following for the rest of my life: 

  • Wearing an N95-type mask in medical settings, including pharmacies
  • Monitoring outbreak warnings
  • Monitoring hospitalization rates for COVID, the flu and RSV
  • Getting tested regularly during outbreaks

And when I’m sick or during an outbreak, 

  • Staying home as much as possible
  • Wearing an N95-type mask in indoor public spaces
  • Eating outdoors
  • Organizing events online/outdoors

The bottom line is that COVID is not over.  We have so far failed to eradicate it.  It can come back at any time.  And I do not want to be complicit in spreading it to vulnerable people.  If it becomes necessary, I plan on reinstating the precautions I’ve been taking for the past few years.  It will be inconvenient and annoying, but it’s a small price to pay for saving so many lives.