A year ago in Alaska, the state was averaging two to 15 cases of COVID-19 per week, according to the Worldometer tracker, and many Alaskans were starting to panic over the pandemic.
We were religiously social distancing, scrubbing our hands like crazy, wiping down everything in sight with antiseptic and arguing over whether failure to wear masks was threatening the lives of our neighbors.
Today, the state is averaging 35 to 65 new cases per week – four to 32 times more, according to the Worldometer tracker – and nobody seems too worried at all.
At Lowe’s and Home Depot on Memorial Day, there were some among those crowding the store sporting masks, but they were few and far between.
That idea started dying when everyone masked up, and it now appears dead. If you wanted the six feet still recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about the only way to ensure it was to wander the store carrying a 10-foot, 2-by-4 by its midsection.
Apparently, the vaccinated are comfortable in their vaccinations and the unvaccinated, well, maybe they were comfortable all along. There are those among us to whom SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, was never a major threat.
When a team of researchers from the U.S., the United Kingdom and France investigated infection fatalities rates back in November and published their peer-reviewed results in Nature they calculated the odds of death at 0.013 percent for healthy people under age of 30 and 0.04 percent for healthy people under the age of 40.
These were the risks of dying if you were infected, and getting infected itself is a crapshoot. Only about a fifth of the passengers held captive aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan at the very start of the pandemic contracted the disease.
Despite a lot of mainstream media hype about how anyone could catch COVID-19 and die, the data never supported the claim the disease was an equal-opportunity threat. Yes, anyone could catch COVID-19 and die just as anyone could be involved in a fatal car crash.
But for COVID-19, as for car crashes, there are circumstances that can radically alter the odds for the “could,” say – for instance – driving while texting or impaired by alcohol.
But that’s history now. Media fear-mongering was then and this is now.
Tolerating the Intolerable
The dynamic has shifted. The fact people are still getting infected with SARS-CoV-2 and coming down with COVD-19 is getting reported in a different way.
“Why ‘Breakthrough’ Infections Even After COVID-19 Vaccinations Shouldn’t Be Surprising,” TIME headlined last week. Of course, they shouldn’t be. Few medical treatments achieve perfection.
And fear only sells for so long because time kills it. People adapt. They accept the unacceptable as the new normal. They bury their dead and go on.
It has been this way throughout history. Humankind has encountered untold horrors and somehow always moved on. Black Americans endured a century of slavery in this country, and another century of oppressive prejudice and survived.
The German blitz was supposed to break the will of the English people during World War II. It didn’t. The Brits took refuge in their subways as the bombs rained down, emerged to put out the fires, and bury their dead.
Life went on.
It was the same in Germany when Allied Forces tried to use bombing to break the will of the Germans and in Japan. The Japanese didn’t surrender until the U.S. unleashed the world’s first nuclear bombs, weapons that reigned down ungodly destruction.
Humans are amazingly adaptable animals. They can learn to live with anything, and we have been learning to live with COVID.
It does help that modern medicine is highly capable and adaptable. The pandemic has triggered a breakthrough in mRNA technology. The “m” stands for “messenger,” and it is being used to slip instructions into the body’s messaging system.
“It’s essentially biological software,” Dr. John Cooke, the medical director of the RNA Therapeutics Program at the Houston Methodist Research Institute, told Patrick Boyle, a writer for the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).
As have many others, AMMC speculated that this new technology officially identified as a vaccine “promises to revolutionize future vaccines and treatments for cancer, infectious diseases.”
“Researchers say mRNA can be used to create a variety of vaccines and treatments in less time and at lower costs than traditional methods,” Boyle added. “The vaccines’ use against COVID-19 will produce more evidence about the effectiveness and safety of this approach.”
So far, the mRNA treatments are proving amazingly effective. Their safety, however, remains unknown. We can’t know what we don’t know, but all indications at this time point to mRNA proving safe over the long term.
But there are no guarantees in predicting the future. Asbestos was for thousands of years a cheap way to fireproof almost anything, according to the Mesothelioma Circle:
“It’s cheap, available in enormous quantities in the ground and it’s fireproof. Items made with it won’t burn. What’s not to like? For thousands of years, that was the official attitude towards asbestos in many countries throughout the world.
“Because of its fiber strength and heat resistance, asbestos was used in a variety of construction materials for insulation and as a fire retardant in buildings throughout the U.S. including schools, hospitals, apartment buildings and factories” for decades from the 1940s to the 1970s, according to the Circle, an advocacy group for victims of mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma is a cancer that was in the 1970s linked to exposure to asbestos. Not everyone who is exposed to asbestos gets the disease, but enough do that the use of asbestos in many products has been banned.
This is not meant to compare mRNA vaccines to asbestos, but only to point out that what we believe today can differ from what we discover tomorrow. Personally, I’ve been vaccinated with the Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA.
It was an informed decision that weighed the risks and unknown consequences. I’m old. The threat of severe COVID-19 is far greater for older people than for younger people, and given how long some long-term effects can take to materialize the future risks are less.
The science here offers no data as to future outcomes, only speculation. I can understand why someone might make a decision different from mine, and I can accept that decision because it’s possible their guess as to future outcomes is better than mine.
At a time when much of society seems to be all about tolerance – at least in preaching it if not embracing it – we sometimes appear to forget that one of the great strengths of American democracy is the freedom given individuals to decide what risks they want to take.
And from the behaviors being seen now in the state’s largest city, plenty of people appear willing to embrace considerably more risk today than they were a year ago.