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Covid vaccines and new Covid treatments ought to make 2022 the end of the pandemic

Just under half the world is fully vaccinated, a powerful reminder of our extraordinary ingenuity and capabilities.
Photo illustration: A person standing at a Covid particle shaped opening of a dark cave.
Beyond the good news on vaccines, there’s even more good news on the development of treatments for Covid.MSNBC / Getty Images

We thought 2021 would be the year the Covid-19 pandemic ended and life returned to normal. Not only did not happen, for those forced to cancel holiday plans for a second year, or for those taken ill by omicron (or as my kids call it, “omicrummy”), 2021 felt uncomfortably similar to 2020. But, in reality, we may be even closer to the end of the pandemic.

For those taken ill by omicron (or as my kids call it, "omicrummy"), 2021 felt uncomfortably similar to 2020.

The first, and best, reason to be optimistic about Covid’s trajectory is the percentage of people who’ve gotten vaccinated. While tens of millions of Americans stubbornly and illogically refuse to get inoculated against a virus that has taken more than 814,000 U.S. lives, 73 percent of all Americans have received at least one dose of a Covid vaccine. For those 12 and above, 84 percent have had at least one shot. Eighty-eight percent of people who are 65 and over, and thus most vulnerable to Covid, are fully vaccinated, and 95 percent have received at least one shot.

Across the globe, more than 8 billion doses have been administered, and 3.8 billion people, just under half of all of humanity, are fully vaccinated. While these numbers need to be higher, that so many people have been vaccinated — in just under a year — is one of the most extraordinary public health accomplishments in human history. It’s a powerful reminder of our ingenuity and capabilities.

Beyond the good news on vaccines, there’s even more good news on the development of treatments for Covid.

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration authorized for emergency use Paxlovid, Pfizer’s antiviral treatment that has been shown to reduce the risk of hospitalization or dying by close to 90 percent among high-risk patients. The agency also authorized the use of molnupiravir, a Merck antiviral.

Dr. William Schaffner, professor of infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, told me these treatments can “prevent the evolution of an infection into a serious illness” and that the Pfizer pill, in particular, “looks very exciting.”

However, Schaffner warned, the near-term benefits of these treatments remain “murky” because the “logistics of distribution are complicated.”

The pills are most effective at the first indication of illness, but without adequate home testing, a person may not be able to get a positive result until it’s too late, Schaffner said.

Then there’s this question: “Who does the screening to figure out who is at the greatest risk?” There will also be questions concerning access: where people can get the pills and how much they’ll cost. In addition, health care providers will need to be educated about the treatments and potentially dangerous drug interactions. In Schaffner’s view, the antiviral treatments “will be a game changer once the rules of the game are established.”

What about omicron? Doesn’t that change the trajectory of the pandemic? Ironically, there’s a potential silver lining in this latest variant. Early reports indicate that it is less severe than earlier Covid variants — in particular, delta. So as it spreads through the population, it may make people sick but not lead to more hospitalizations or deaths. If that’s the case, Schaffner said unvaccinated people may get sick — though not fatally — and thus have greater natural immunity to Covid going forward. That would expand the number of people unlikely to get seriously ill from the virus.

“It could,” Schaffner said, “signal the end of the pandemic phase” and move Covid into the realm of illness and nuisance but not death. If that were to occur, with most people being vaccinated or with sufficient immunity, things could return to normal sooner rather than later.

President Joe Biden said America is not returning to the days of shuttered schools and remote learning.

That certainly seems to be the attitude of the Biden administration. In his remarks last week updating the country on omicron, President Joe Biden said America is not returning to the days of shuttered schools and remote learning. “We can keep our K-through-12 schools open,” Biden said, “and that’s exactly what we should be doing.”

As Biden made clear: “If you are not fully vaccinated, you have good reason to be concerned. You’re at a high risk of getting sick. And if you get sick, you’re likely to spread it to others, including friends and family. … But if you’re among the majority of Americans who are fully vaccinated, and especially if you’ve gotten the booster shot — that third shot — you’re much — you have much, much less reason to worry.”

More cities are requiring proof of vaccination to eat in restaurants, go to the gym or see a concert or movie. Boston and Chicago announced such plans last week. Los Angeles and New York City have had such requirements for weeks. On Jan. 7, the Supreme Court will hear arguments regarding the status of Biden’s call for a federal mandate requiring proof of vaccination or weekly Covid tests for any business with more than 100 employees. A federal appeals court has already upheld the administration’s worker mandate, and if the high court concurs, some 80 million Americans will be required to get vaccinated or face weekly testing.

Of course, in red state America, the lack of vaccine mandates will keep case counts needlessly high. Nonetheless, these steps will represent a critical shift in the pandemic — by placing greater consequences on unvaccinated people.

If people want to make the choice not to protect themselves, their families and people in their communities by remaining unvaccinated, they are free to do so. But it’s long past the point that we, as a nation, impose a larger burden on them for what is, at its core, a selfish decision. There’s no reason why the vast majority of Americans, who have done the responsible thing and gotten a shot, should be forced to alter their lives because of other people’s irresponsibility. The best way for America to return to normalcy is to make clear that being vaccinated against Covid is the price of admission for a return to normalcy.

That we are getting closer to that cultural shift — and that we now have new treatments to save the lives of those who test positive and hundreds of millions of Americans are vaccinated or have natural immunity — means we are that much closer to moving beyond Covid. For reasons that have more to do with politics than the virus itself, far too many Americans will continue to die of Covid, but a year from now, we are more likely to look back and acknowledge 2022 as the year we really did get back to normal.