Reminders of just how drastically COVID-19 has changed everyday lives are random and unavoidable.
Some, like the cardboard Minnesota Twins fan cutouts filling Target Field stands, offer comic relief. Others can feel like a punch to the gut. Pushing a shopping cart past back-to school displays lined with crayons and notebooks usually inspires delicious anticipation no matter your age. This year brings an ache over milestone moments lost or muted as an unchecked virus forces the continuation of distance learning for some schools.
Months into the pandemic, the longing for normality is intense and completely understandable. COVID fatigue is likely even more widespread than the disease itself. But no matter how badly we want to be done with the virus, it is not ready to be done with us, with key disease metrics in Minnesota and many states trending in the wrong direction. On Thursday, the well-known Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation updated its COVID death projection, forecasting an American death toll of 300,000 by Dec. 1. But, its experts added, that toll could be reduced by 70,000 lives if a nationwide mask mandate were put in place this week.
It's important to step back and acknowledge that this is far from over, especially as it becomes clearer the role that individuals must play in combating the virus until a vaccine becomes widely available. Social distancing, hygiene and masks may be low-tech, but they play a critical role in containing COVID, and they're more effective when embraced en masse. It's also important to be mentally prepared to "turn the dial" back up on restrictions, such as those on bars or social gatherings, that have been eased.
"This isn't going away. This is our new normal," Dr. Mark Welton, chief medical officer for M Health Fairview, told an editorial writer last week.
University of Minnesota infectious-disease expert Michael Osterholm has long warned the nation that controlling COVID is going to take time. He heads the U's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP). A report issued by the group in late April provided a valuable public service by laying out clear expectations about the months ahead.
The authors addressed this question head-on: How long will the pandemic last? Based on analysis of previous worldwide influenza outbreaks, the likely answer is 18 to 24 months. It's a sobering time frame that starts in January 2020 and runs deep into 2021, potentially even 2022.
The authors also detail three scenarios that the pandemic is likely to follow. The first, "peaks and valleys," has the viral cases cycling up and down over the pandemic's course. The second is the 1918 influenza model, with a spring peak followed by a high spike in the fall and a smaller wave in the following spring. The third, a "slow burn," has small, steady waves of cases.
At this point, Osterholm says it appears that the first scenario, "peaks and valleys," is playing out. Knowing that provides important context. A decrease in case counts is welcome news, but likely not a sign that the pandemic is over. Moreover, the waves may signal the need to adjust the dial on social restrictions. "Depending on the height of the wave peaks, this scenario could require periodic reinstitution and subsequent relaxation of mitigation measures over the next 1 to 2 years," the study's authors wrote.
Osterholm has often told Minnesotans and others that we are still in the "early innings" in the matchup against this virus. COVID weariness is real, but it's time to dig in for the long haul and for everyone to do their part preventing the virus from running up the score.