WASHINGTON — Asked at a Wednesday briefing of the White House pandemic response team about when Americans could expect life to return to normal, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky offered a somewhat cryptic but revealing response.
“We know people are anxious,” Walensky said.
Asked which anxiety she was referring to, a Walensky spokesperson told Yahoo News: “This comment was made in response to a question on if people can change their habits for gathering in groups or going to bars and restaurants. Dr. Walensky recognizes that many people are anxious to get back to these activities and no longer have COVID-19 disrupt their daily lives.”
Indeed, a recent poll by YouGov for Yahoo News found 46 percent of Americans saying that society needs to learn to live with the virus and return to pre-pandemic normalcy. A recent Monmouth poll found even more dramatic results, with 70 percent of respondents agreeing with the statement that “we just need to get on with our lives.”
There is, to be sure, plenty of anxiety to go around: about catching COVID-19, which continues to kill more than 2,000 people per day, but also about what public health officials envision for the future. Resistance to masking in schools is growing even among progressives, amid a broader recognition that while caution may continue to be justified, Americans are becoming increasingly impatient.
Walensky described herself as “cautiously optimistic,” but offered nothing like an endorsement of returning to normal that governors who met with President Biden earlier this week have been hoping for.
“Milder does not mean mild,” Walensky said, referencing the fact that the Omicron tends to cause more mild sickness. But close to 40 percent of eligible Americans are unvaccinated. And of the fully vaccinated, 60 percent have not had a booster shot, which epidemiologists say is necessary to offer the highest level of protection against the coronavirus.
“We really do have look to our hospitalization rates, and our death rates, to look to when it's time to lift some of these mitigation efforts,” Walensky said in explaining why her agency’s guidance on masking remains cautious, and why the recent drop in cases is not being met with the level of enthusiasm some believe it deserves.
Hospitals are full in many parts of the country, and COVID-19 continues to exact a far greater toll in the United States than in other developed nations. “We’ve normalized a very high death toll in the U.S.,” Dartmouth public health scholar Anne Sosin told the New York Times.
The pandemic has frustrated previous attempts at reopening with new variants that have pushed a true reopening — masks off, people back in offices, schools open and restaurants full — ever further into the future.
Last spring, the CDC lifted indoor masking guidance for vaccinated people, a move some thought was premature. Then, in early July, President Biden all but declared independence from the virus, symbolically delivered on Independence Day during a party celebrating first respondents. That too was seen as a rash move by some.
But the late summer saw a surge of new cases fueled by the Delta variant. Just as it subsided, Omicron came along. Even though that wave is now subsiding too, public health officials are reluctant to declare victory. Speaking at the White House briefing with Walensky, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s top medical adviser, reminded Americans that even the recent drop in cases could signal a mere lull before yet another variant comes along.
Which could mean that, whether people are anxious about the coronavirus or about relegating the disease to the past, they may have to live in the current state of uncertainty. “We have to be honest that we don’t know,” Fauci said of the pandemic’s ultimate trajectory. But, he added, “We believe we are now going in the right direction.”