Covid-19 fatigue

I am one of the fortunate ones in that I was able to get vaccinated and boosted and since I am retired, during the worst of the pandemic I could spend most of my time at home and thus could easily practice social distancing. I also wore masks whenever I was in any indoor facility with other people. But while it was not onerous, I too have started to feel weary of taking these precautions and was hopeful that the rapid decline in cases in the recent past signaled the transition from a pandemic phase to an endemic phase that would enable us to let down our guard and just take the kinds of precautions we are used to with other familiar airborne contagions like the flu and cold, where we stay at home when we have symptoms and avoid contact with people who are exhibiting symptoms.

But now we hear reports of a delta-omicron hybrid and a BA.2 version of the omicron variant causing a slight uptick in cases in Europe and the UK, which in the past have been leading indicators of what would happen in the US after about two or three weeks. 45% of the US population has been infected with omicron and thus have some immunity to that BA.2 version of it but that still leaves a large number at risk.

What is more surprising is that those countries that had great success in keeping cases low in the early days when the pandemic was raging through the US, like China and New Zealand, are now seeing a rise in cases. Also surprising is the situation in Hong Kong which started seeing a rise in cases and deaths beginning in mid-February. That country has a relatively low vaccination rate.

After more than two years of mostly fighting off Covid, Hong Kong has become the world’s worst hot spot. The main problem, as in so many other places, is vaccine skepticism.

Heading into the current outbreak, nearly 40 percent of Hong Kong’s population was not vaccinated, and more than half of people over 70 – the age group most vulnerable to severe Covid – were unvaccinated.

Why? Many Hong Kong residents do not trust the government, given the increasing repression by China. Others are dubious of Western medicine or have been influenced by misinformation, as my colleagues Alexandra Stevenson and Austin Ramzy have reported. “I worry that the side effects of vaccination will kill me,” Lam Suk-haa, who’s 80 years old, told The Times last month. “I won’t get vaccinated as long as I have a choice.”

Until recently, Hong Kong – like mainland China – had been largely successful in keeping out the virus, which meant that vaccine skepticism did not bring large costs. But the Omicron variant is so contagious that it overwhelmed Hong Kong’s “zero-Covid” strategy.

The death rate in Hong Kong has soared this month, surpassing 25 per 100,000 residents in the past week. That’s not as high as New York’s peak death rate in the spring of 2020, but it is higher than in any country today. And Hong Kong’s rate will probably continue rising, because new case numbers did not start falling until about a week ago; death trends typically lag case trends by about three weeks.

Vaccination continues to be the best protection against infection or serious illness but ideology is playing an important role in the US in whether one gets vaccinated or not.

Republicans have long been split over vaccination, with many eagerly getting shots while many others refuse. Democrats have their own growing schism, between those who believe Covid precautions should continue to be paramount and those who favor moves toward normalcy.

The key dividing line appears to be ideology. Americans who identify as “very liberal” are much more worried about Covid than Americans who identify as “somewhat liberal” or “liberal.” Increasingly, the very liberal look like outliers on Covid: The merely liberal are sometimes closer to moderates than to the very liberal.

Very liberal Americans make up almost 10 percent of adults, according to our poll and others. Many are younger than 50 and have a four-year college degree. They span all races but are disproportionately white, the Pew Research Center has found.

In recent years, these progressive professionals have tended to adopt a cautious approach to personal safety. You might even call it conservative.

When it comes to Covid, there is abundant evidence that the most liberal Americans are exaggerating the risks to the vaccinated and to children.

Consider that Democrats younger than 45 are more likely to say the virus poses a great risk to them than those older than 65 are – which is inconsistent with scientific reality but consistent with younger Democrats’ more intense liberalism. Or consider that many liberals (including Sonia Sotomayor) feel deep anxiety about Covid’s effects on children – even though the flu kills more children in a typical year and car crashes kill about five times as many. Long Covid, similarly, appears to be rare in both children and vaccinated people.

The truth is that the vast majority of severe Covid illness is occurring among those Americans who have chosen not to be vaccinated and boosted.

The American focus on Covid’s dangers, by contrast, has caused disruption and isolation that feed educational losses, mental health troubles, drug overdoses, violent crime and vehicle crashes. These damages have fallen disproportionately on low-income, Black and Latino Americans, exacerbating inequality in ways that would seem to violate liberal values.

“Rather than eliminating the risk of Covid, you’ve got to manage the risk,” Elizabeth Howe Bradley, a public health expert and the president of Vassar College, told me recently. “If you really go for minimizing the risk, you’re going to have unintended consequences to people’s physical health, their mental health, their social health.”

She added: “It’s Public Health 101.”

Sociologists and psychologists are going to have a rich mine of information to analyze in the coming years.


  1. moarscienceplz says

    My county was one of the last in California to lift the mask mamdate. Masks became optional on March 2, and I am happy to report that when I go to the grocery store about 80% of the people are still masked up. In fact, now that they are optional I think it’s a bit fun to wear one. I think of it as my anti-MAGA hat.

  2. anat says

    Going ‘back to normal’ is a recipe for large numbers of long Covid cases. One can end up with long Covid even after a very mild case of the initial illness. So I upgraded my masks for Omicron, and will keep wearing N-95s for work, shopping, and other such activities. The nice thing about wearing an N-95 is that I no longer care about all the people on the bus who wear their masks improperly. My worst exposure might be during my lunch time, though at least now there still aren’t many people around. I wish I could take my lunch outdoors, but between weather and construction this is unlikely.

  3. nobgu says

    The flu isn’t very effective at aerosol infection, it can be managed even with spotty vaccines. But with SARS-COV-2 and the available vaccines it simply doesn’t look like the risks can be managed without masks and isolation measures. The last two years have shown that we have no effective way to protect vulnerable groups otherwise. Immunocompromised persons are people, too. The second article conveniently glosses over that fact by lumping them in with anti vaxxers.

  4. maggie says

    Mask mandates here in my corner of Canada (Ontario) were just lifted a couple of days ago. A whole lot of people are singing “don’t worry, be happy” but I am doubling down on masks now. While about 75% of the people in Bruce County have their boosters, there are still too many that don’t seem to care. I have a 101 year old parent living with me and I am not taking any chances. Either N95 or two other masks. I’m retired and I could care less what Covidiots say about it. The pandemic is not over yet.

  5. Reginald Selkirk says

    My institution of higher education is loosening their mask mandate, despite recording an average of over 30 new cases of COVID per day. And that despite cutting their testing way back. So yes, I definitely have the impression that they are just getting tired of it.

  6. Holms says

    ^ Yes, definitely. Deaths scale well with cases, and if cases went from 10k to 400k per day -- forty times -- we would expect deaths to increase by approximately the same amount. So far, going from 50 to 300 deaths per say is only a six-fold increase; the rest is coming soon.

  7. file thirteen says

    For a long time here in NZ there was a total elimination strategy. Then a single case of Delta got into the community, and what was successful before was retried, which was to lock down hard and contact-trace it away (there was some overseas ridicule at NZ’s going “over the top” on this). But what worked with less contagious variants failed with Delta, and NZ has never been Covid-free since.

    I do believe NZ had to try elimination. We were almost uniquely positioned for it. But now we know, and if Delta couldn’t be eliminated, attempting to eliminate Omicron is clearly futile.

    At the time of Delta’s arrival, NZ had low vaccination rates, but when elimination failed the government adopted a vaccinating strategy. Now 94% of people ages 12+* are fully vaccinated (2 shots plus a booster). And unsurprisingly, lockdown fatigue is rife, and the prevailing opinions are that it’s always going to be with us, everyone’s going to catch it eventually, and it’s too much effort to bust our guts trying to convince the few remaining hard-heads to vaccinate.

    So restrictions are gradually being lifted, and as long as the hospitals don’t become in danger of being overburdened, that will continue. Vaccine passes and QR code scanning will be scrapped come April. Outside gatherings are now unrestricted in size, and inside limits have been doubled to 200. The only unchanged requirement is wear masks indoors (except at home).

    * I should mention that it’s different for 5 to 11 year olds -- only 10% are fully vaccinated (ie. including the booster) and only half are even partially vaccinated. There has been one death in this age range.

  8. Reginald Selkirk says

    @5: Loosening of the mask mandate was followed by a spike in new cases. Whooda thunk it.

  9. Matt G says

    I’ve been seeing mixed messages recently: the booster’s effectiveness wanes after 4-6 months, and officials aren’t convinced another booster is indicated (yet, at least). My booster was in early November. I’ll be masking in public for quite some time, thank you.

  10. Reginald Selkirk says

    I read a few articles about nasal vaccines. The gist was that they might do a better job of stopping the spread. But I never saw any followup so they do not seem to have amounted to much.

  11. Holms says

    #8 file thirteen
    Total elimination never had a prayer as a strategy if even a single other nation took a more relaxed approach. Any nation employing that as their long term strategy relies on all other nations having the same strategy, as endemism anywhere in the world would create a reservoir requiring indefinite guard.

  12. Reginald Selkirk says

    @13 … as endemism anywhere in the world would create a reservoir requiring indefinite guard.

    And don’t forget that this virus has been observed to infect numerous animal species.

  13. file thirteen says

    Holms #13

    Nobody dreamed it would last forever. It did work well for us for a couple of years though, while the rest of the world bore the brunt of it. China are still sticking with that strategy.

  14. jrkrideau says

    @ 4 Maggie
    South Eastern Ontario. We are running at 89% with 2 shots & 65% with 3. I’d say a sizeable majority of all ages were masked when I was in the grocery store yesterday and a lot of people just walking down a crowded sidewalk were masked.

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