Andrew Dunn , Hilary Brueck , Aria Bendix , and Patricia Kelly Yeo
March 1, 2021
- Public-health experts are feeling unusually optimistic about this summer and the pandemic.
- Insider talked to 18 experts, many of whom plan to travel, see family, and even go to the movies.
- Here's why you should be optimistic for the summer and how to have fun while making smart decisions.
Public-health experts are experiencing a novel feeling lately: optimism about the coronavirus.
It's not something we've heard much when talking about the pandemic, which has killed more than 500,000 Americans and sickened millions. But when Insider spoke with 18 doctors and scientists about the coming summer, they all said there was reason for some cheer on the horizon.
"We're planning a summer that respects the fact that the virus is not going to be gone and that children will not be vaccinated en masse," Dr. Dara Kass, an emergency-medicine physician in New York, said. "But it will be something. And I think it'll be fun."
That optimism stems from rapidly declining coronavirus case numbers, the accelerating pace of the US vaccination campaign, and warmer weather ahead. As the US comes down from a big winter surge, experts are hopeful we've turned a corner on the worst of the pandemic, at least in this country.
Kass and other experts said they were getting ready to reunite with their extended families again: vacationing, going to dinner, traveling cross-country, and visiting national parks with some sense of palpable relief. But they're also not going to be standing shoulder to shoulder with strangers indoors — at least not yet.
Instead, they provided a framework for us to think about how to live life wisely this summer, while enjoying ourselves as much as possible.
Why you should be optimistic about this summer
An aggressive vaccine program is going to be the biggest key to our summer fun, Dr. Janice Blanchard, the chief of health policy at George Washington University, said. There should be enough vaccines by summer to make them widely available to adults (they're not yet authorized for children), though that doesn't mean everyone will choose to get one.
"Just being vaccinated will really equip you to feel a little safer," Blanchard said. "We'll still have to wear masks, but I think we will be able to at least have those outdoor events and be able to get a little bit closer to maybe how things were before."
Already, nearly 50 million Americans have gotten at least one dose of a vaccine. Supply has been limited, but manufacturers are about to provide an influx of doses, and a newly authorized one-dose shot from Johnson & Johnson will speed up vaccinations even more.
Widespread vaccinations won't just dramatically slash the odds of people getting seriously ill or dying but also reduce stress on the healthcare system and the country's burned-out clinicians, said Dr. Robert Wachter, the chairman of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
To be sure, bumps in the road ahead are inevitable, and the pandemic is far from over. Coronavirus variants, some of which threaten to diminish the power of current vaccines, could bring a surge in cases. Unequal access to the vaccine and hesitancy to get a shot will continue to be issues, with some experts voicing concerns about the creation of a second-class cohort of nonvaccinated Americans.
"One of my fears is that we don't come close to reaching herd immunity because of vaccine hesitation," former Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen said. "Things look good enough in the summer, and people do not get vaccinated in large numbers. Then we come into the fall, and more variants emerge, and we have another surge."
Summer weather may also give us some natural advantages in staving off a coronavirus surge. It's tougher for viruses like the coronavirus to thrive in the warm sunshine, and people are naturally drawn outside, where there's infinite ventilation.
Concerts, festivals, and weddings remain a gray area
It's possible that COVID-19 will be seen as a manageable illness this summer across the US.
Dr. Walid Gellad, an associate professor of medicine and health policy at the University of Pittsburgh, said most outdoor activities this summer would be OK and that people would wear masks when returning to work, traveling on planes, and visiting crowded places. Many are already doing so, and those activities should become safer as more people get vaccinated.
"We're going to be much closer to normal than maybe we think," he said. "I plan on having barbecues and inviting people over."
Big indoor gatherings of strangers aren't likely to be safe this summer, according to Dr. Céline Gounder, an infectious-disease physician at New York University.
The Harvard infectious-disease expert Barry Bloom said summer would be safer "the more time people spend out of doors, going to national parks." But he cautioned against spending time "in strange places" where you may not know "anything about who's bringing the virus in."
Weddings, in particular, were a polarizing question.
Most experts agreed that you'd want most attendees to be vaccinated at a wedding, but they weren't sure when we'd hit that mark.
"I actually think in August there will be reasonable ways of having an outdoor wedding with an acceptable risk profile," Dr. Daniel Griffin, Optum ProHealth's chief of infectious disease, said.
Other experts rejected the idea of any large summer weddings, even if they themselves were fully vaccinated. The data on vaccines doesn't show whether they fully prevent transmission, so there's still a chance that vaccinated people could spread the virus to those without the vaccine or viral antibodies.
"Let's put it this way: Will I be attending a 100-person wedding in July, and I'm fully vaccinated? My answer is likely no," Dr. Carlos del Rio, an infectious-disease professor at Emory University, said. But fall might be a different story, he added.
Experts' summertime playbook: summer camps, grandbabies, and national parks
Public-health and infectious-disease experts are already drafting plans for travel and family fun this summer.
Bloom is thinking of flying cross-country to visit his 9-month-old grandson in California for the first time.
Kass expects two of her three kids to be able to go to a sleepaway camp.
Griffin is planning for a family vacation in August — his first in nearly two years. He said he intended on flying somewhere and "really enjoying the summer," including some indoor dining and movie dates (with masks).
Other experts said they would still seek seclusion. Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Irvine, is plotting some time in his "own little bubble" in the Sierra Nevada mountains, he said.
Gounder said she and her husband had plans for a "fairly quiet" trip in August to somewhere without crowds.
Others said they'd even feel comfortable seeing vaccinated relatives from outside the country.
"If my father and my mother-in-law, who now live in other countries, are able to be vaccinated, I would love to have them come and visit us," Wen said. "That small theoretical risk of them being carriers of coronavirus is low."
But most experts aren't ready to belly up to the bar for a drink indoors quite yet.
"Will I be going to a bar with lots of people, very crowded? The answer is no, not anytime soon," del Rio said.
How to make your own smart decisions: 3 levels of protection
Across the board, experts pointed to three factors to consider when weighing your summer plans.
First, evaluate yourself and your family members: Are you vaccinated? Are you at high risk of severe infection if you get sick? Could you transmit the virus to others?
Even when we're all vaccinated, an 82-year-old with asthma will probably have a different risk tolerance than a healthy 25-year-old.
Next, think about your local community: How much virus is circulating, and how widespread is immunity? Would you expect one in five people attending a ball game to be immunized, or is that figure closer to four in five?
Finally, consider the risk of a specific event or activity. Outdoors events are safer, as are smaller events. Wearing a mask helps, too.
Erring on the side of caution is worth it — for all of us.
"If we're overly cautious, you don't get to take your mask off, or you forgo a hug with grandma," E. John Wherry, an immunologist at the University of Pennsylvania, said. "But if we're wrong on the other side, people die."
Still, there's no doubt that getting together in person with those we love this summer is good for our collective well-being. Nearly a year in relative isolation has led to rising rates of depression and anxiety.
"For many of us, managing stress is talking it out or relying on our loved ones to give us a hug," Benjamin Miller, a clinical psychologist, said.
At the same time, Miller advised creating clear boundaries for what we are each comfortable doing socially this year. For example, he said, you might tell a friend you're going to see: "I'm not going to eat indoors at a restaurant," or, "I don't feel comfortable being around folks who aren't wearing masks."
This can help minimize our pandemic anxieties, which aren't going to magically disappear just because a lot of shots have been administered.
Experts still worry about vaccinations, variants, and next winter
As we enter autumn, a new concern may become top of mind: how long protection from vaccines lasts. The Evercore ISI biotech analyst Umer Raffat said it was possible that by late summer, immunized people may start to see waning protection, and they could be susceptible to reinfection without a booster shot.
Unequal access to vaccine doses for the rest of the world could also upend US progress. As long as the virus is still spreading somewhere, there's a chance of the pathogen picking up more mutations and drifting away from original strains.
"There's a disconnect between the timelines of what we can do in high-income countries and what we really need to do in the low- and middle-income ones," Maria Elena Bottazzi, a vaccine researcher at Baylor College of Medicine, said. "That's going to come, eventually, to bite us."
Addressing global inequity will be critical for the world to live alongside the coronavirus. Some experts hope the level of COVID-19 deaths in the US can quickly be brought in line with a bad flu season, which can kill 60,000 Americans.
But keeping coronavirus caseloads flu-like will require constant vigilance — including monitoring for asymptomatic cases, masking and handwashing, and continued vaccinations.
"If I can get 60,000 COVID deaths in a year, we would take it," Dr. Kavita Patel, a primary-care physician in Washington, said.
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