Cambridge, MA restaurant sign, June 13, 2021. Photo by Jason Pramas. Copyright 2021 Jason Pramas.
Cambridge, MA restaurant sign, June 13, 2021. Photo by Jason Pramas. Copyright 2021 Jason Pramas.

Mass residents need to stop running amok in public spaces

As I write this column on June 13, the Mayo Clinic Vaccine Tracker web page indicates that 43% of Americans are fully vaccinated (with either the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines or the one-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine) and 52.2% are fully vaccinated or have received at least one dose of the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Massachusetts is doing significantly better than that national average, with 57.1% of its population being fully vaccinated and 68.2% having received at least one dose. Given that one dose of the two-dose vaccines provides a significant amount of protection, and that herd immunity—the point at which enough people are immune to the current circulating variants of the virus that they can’t infect enough people to keep the pandemic going—can be attained somewhere between 70 and 90% of the population, according to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, that is cause for some celebration in the Bay State.

But nearly half of US residents have received no vaccine overall. And fully 25% of Americans have no plans to do so, according to a May Gallup poll. Thus while Massachusetts might achieve herd immunity, the US as a whole will not.

Vaccination rates have slowed considerably in the last couple of months, with NBC News reporting that the nation is unlikely to hit President Biden’s July 4 target for getting at least one shot to 70% of Americans. Though we might get there by late July.

Meanwhile, less and less standard virus testing, less contact tracing to identify and counter virus hotspots, and very little of the genomic sequencing that helps monitor the spread of coronavirus variants is being done anymore in the US. Many states are even cutting back on the frequency of their reporting on case numbers and deaths from daily to as little as once a week, according to NPR. So we’re increasingly flying blind. Or as one Harvard public health expert put it, “If you turn out the light, you can’t see what’s going on. Or if you only turn on the light every now and then, something nasty could be building and you wouldn’t know until it was too late … .”

Add to all this the fact that there is still no vaccine yet approved for children under 12 and that most countries—notably Brazil and India, where two of the worst coronavirus variants emerged—lag far behind more developed nations like the US in vaccination rates, and there is very little chance that the coronavirus crisis is going to end anytime soon. More likely this pandemic will follow the paths of previous pandemics, with case numbers from the original virus and the even more dangerous mutant strains that are the variants of that virus going up and down until it finally burns out in a few years.

With business leaders, politicians, and even public health officials increasingly refusing to do what’s necessary to really beat the pandemic back for good, from extending blanket mask mandates in indoor public spaces to continuing standard testing and contact tracing programs—because of reasonable drops in case numbers from vaccination, investor pressure on CEOs to raise profits back to pre-pandemic levels economy wide, and public pressure to declare the pandemic over—none of the above is good news. 

Add the huge jumps in interstate and international travel we’re seeing as summer approaches to the mix and even a state like Massachusetts that’s doing well compared to most of the rest of the world can definitely expect to see case numbers start to spike again by year’s end. Because travellers bring new and more potent variants of the virus with them from afar—and eventually one or more of said variants will be capable of evading current vaccines before new boosters start getting distributed. Maybe the spike won’t be as high as previous spikes, but it will be serious nonetheless. In states and nations with lower vaccination rates, this new spike will be much worse—adding insult to injury in the form of significant increases to already appalling and unnecessary death tolls.

It’s also vital to remember that no vaccine provides 100% virus protection or prevents virus transmission 100% of the time. There have already been significant numbers of “breakthrough” infections of people that have been partially or fully vaccinated right here in the Bay State. And, close to home, the Bangor Daily News just reported that eight fully-vaccinated Maine residents have died from COVID-19.

So instead of stopping the virus cold worldwide, it’s looking like the pandemic will continue on and off for years.

And there’s one more disturbing issue to consider. A recent Atlantic magazine article pointed out that there was a little known smallpox epidemic after the Civil War that devastated the country, but wrecked particular havoc among the population of recently-liberated slaves. After a while, public health officials declared the epidemic over because it had receded among the better-off white population in cities. But it turns out that smallpox didn’t disappear. It became endemic in rural Black communities until it was eradicated by vaccines in the 1950s.

This tells us another consequence of our pretending the pandemic is over when it really is not. Poor people worldwide could easily continue to suffer horribly from the coronavirus for years to come. But once (unevenly) rich power centers like Boston declare it done, money to really defeat the coronavirus will disappear. Leaving it free to continue spreading and mutating among the legions of poor people across the planet who will always be far less likely to be able to get vaccinated … and possibly to emerge in new and more dangerous forms down the line.

My message to readers in Massachusetts and beyond then is simple. Stop running amok without masks everywhere. Stop pretending that the pandemic is over when it is not. Do your best to follow the increasingly confusing CDC pandemic rules covering vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals across age, occupation, and educational status. Continue wearing masks in public transportation of any kind, including in rideshares. If you’re not vaccinated, do not dine inside restaurants or drink in indoor bars and absolutely do not enter public indoor spaces without masks—including big ones like the Northshore Mall where I noted that virtually no customers or workers were wearing masks on a visit there yesterday. 

I know no one wants to hear this now, but Massachusetts is not an island. With dozens of colleges and universities—plus many multinational corporations, financial institutions, and historical sites—we welcome students, business travelers, and tourists from all over the world all the time. And virus strains like the Delta variant from India continue to spread quickly here with over 30% of our population unvaccinated. Remember that case numbers are hovering around a hundred a day in the Commonwealth and there are still several deaths most days. When a variant emerges that our initial vaccines can’t handle well, such numbers will start to rise quickly—since we’re still not even down to typical influenza season numbers yet.

Therefore, readers need to continue taking the pandemic seriously. Keep informing yourselves and your families about the latest pandemic information, keep wearing masks in indoor public spaces and crowded outdoor spaces—especially if you’re unvaccinated— get vaccinated if you haven’t been, don’t rush to eat and drink in indoor restaurants and bars, push state government to reconsider its return to in-person education for nearly all K-12 students this fall, and push your politicians at all levels to force pharmaceutical companies and the US government to give away free vaccine doses to the billions of people that still need them worldwide as soon as humanly possible, and maybe there’s hope we can beat back the pandemic for good this year.

Failing that, be prepared for the consequences. And don’t be surprised if we all have to lock down again at least one more time by next spring … and for coronavirus outbreaks to be a regular occurrence for the next few years.

Apparent Horizon—an award-winning political column—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism’s Pandemic Democracy Project. Contact for more information. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2021 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.