By Felipe De La Hoz
Do you or someone you know have Covid-19? The answer is likely yes. Yet most Americans say life has essentially returned to a pre-pandemic level of normalcy.
Where once Covid-19 seemed like an all-encompassing issue — the specter haunting daily life, at the forefront of every conversation, the first question at every press conference, the issue from which all others flowed to the extent that it prompted the launching of this newsletter — it has slowly but surely receded from this everyday dominance.
Most New Yorkers have gotten vaccinated. Masking rules have been relaxed or withdrawn completely. Workers are returning to offices, and a series of other crises — particularly soaring rents, perceptions of rising crime, and a prowling economic recession — have taken precedence in people’s minds. Covid-19 has never totally exited the public discourse, but it increasingly seems relegated to a secondary concern, despite long-Covid-sufferers’ pleas to not be forgotten.
Covid getting more contagious, but deaths remain low
Unfortunately, Covid has shown it is far from done with us, apathetic as it is to public sentiment. Most people have probably missed that new variants have kept emerging, getting more contagious and more resistant to vaccines, with the latest dominant strain being the BA.5 Omicron sub-variant. Citywide positivity rates have climbed past 14% citywide, with areas of Staten Island and Queens nearing 25% rates, numbers not seen for months. Positivity totals are almost certainly undercounts as the city closes testing centers and more New Yorkers take at-home tests without reporting positive results.
The good news is that the death rates remain very low; even if they’re not quite warding off infection to the level that we’d want them to, the vaccines remain excellent at preventing serious illness and death and anyone who at this stage remains on the fence should absolutely get their full slate of shots. The bad news is that serious illness and death are increasingly not the preeminent concern when it comes to Covid-19 infections, with the main danger now coming from the prospect of so-called long Covid, the still-poorly-understood set of chronic conditions that can develop after the main infection subsides, even if it had mild symptoms to begin with.
The prevalence of long Covid
This isn’t a one-in-a-million thing. As many as 30% of patients in at least one study developed some form of long Covid, whose impact can include extreme fatigue, difficulty focusing, long-term heart and lung conditions, and other serious hazards. It seems like every month we find new cause for concern: Covid-19 can remain in the organs; it can linger in and attack cells themselves. What’s clear is that we fundamentally don’t understand the breadth of the potential long-term impact, not only for individuals but for society as a whole.
There are obvious overarching and uncomfortable questions around what a potentially very large population of formerly healthy and now chronically disabled people will mean for our social and political realities. Many will be those who had to continue working during the pandemic, exposing themselves to risk not only of death but apparently a lifelong series of persistent health and neurological conditions. As the smoke is clearing, there’s a philosophical question: what is our responsibility to them? The current setup of our disability systems is certainly not intuitive nor particularly sensitive to the needs of the populations it’s serving. On a purely logistical scale, they’re not set up to accommodate hundreds of thousands of new people for an indefinite period.
Meanwhile, we risk ever more people being condemned to this fate. As infections tick up, so will the incidences of long Covid. Most pandemic restrictions have been removed, people are often hardly masked in public spaces, and vaccine mandates are easing. Yet there’s probably little appetite for mass new restrictions as deaths remain low and New Yorkers fret over a possibly cratering economy; it’s also undeniable that remote learning did clear educational damage to the city’s schoolchildren, and sending them home would be a disruption with very serious long-term implications of its own.
We’re caught between a rock and a hard place. We can’t sit on our hands and wait for thousands more to find themselves in the crosshairs of long Covid, but it’s not clear that the types of heavy-handed constraints that characterized the early pandemic are the best solution. Factors like a looming homelessness crisis set off by skyrocketing rents and the end of the state and federal eviction moratoriums and depletion of rental assistance funds threatens to make it all far worse. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but what I do know is that we can’t will Covid-19 away. This has to be part of the political conversation, and we have to find ways to address the dangers of a long Covid wave. If we don’t act now, the consequences will manifest for a lifetime.