Frequently Asked Questions about COVID-19 — June 29, 2022

“Shared expectations lead to predictability.”

572.  Despite a Covid surge this spring, the death rate now is almost the lowest.

         QIf we are ‘returning to normal,” are the risks now lower?

         A:  On June 21, Benjamin Mueller reported in the New York Times that for two years, the coronavirus killed Americans on a brutal, predictable schedule: A few weeks after infections climbed so did deaths, cutting an unforgiving path across the country.

But that pattern appears to have changed. Nearly three months since an ultra-contagious set of new Omicron variants launched a springtime resurgence of cases, people are dying from Covid at a rate close to the lowest of the pandemic.  The spread of the virus and the number of deaths in its wake, two measures that were once yoked together, have diverged more than ever before, epidemiologists said.  The country remains better fortified against Covid deaths than earlier in the pandemic, scientists said.  Because so many Americans have now been vaccinated or infected or both, they said, the number of people whose immune systems are entirely unprepared for the virus has significantly dwindled.

“In previous waves, there were still substantial pockets of people who had not been vaccinated or exposed to the virus, and so they were at the same risk of dying as people at the beginning of the pandemic,” said Dr. David Dowdy, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Those pockets don’t exist anymore.”

That turn in the pandemic has nevertheless left many Americans behind.  Older people make up a larger share of Covid deaths than they did last year. The virus continues to kill unvaccinated people at much higher rates than vaccinated people, despite many unvaccinated people having some protection from prior infections. And those with weakened immune systems also face greater risks.

Covid is still killing an average of 314 people daily, one-tenth the number who were dying every day in January 2021, but, even so, an awful toll. At that rate, the virus is killing more than twice as many Americans every day as suicide or car crashes. And many of those who survive the virus are debilitated, some of them for long after their infections.  This proves the assumption by the CDC that the public is willing to “return to normal” quickly even though the risks are still great.

573.  Broadway will drop the mask mandate beginning July 1.

         Q:  What other public venues are loosening their mask requirement?

         A:  Broadway theaters will be allowed to drop their mask mandates starting July 1, the Broadway League announced Tuesday.  The League described the new policy as “mask optional,” and said it would be re-evaluated monthly.

“Our theater owners have been watching the protocols, watching admissions to hospitals, watching as we have no issues across the country where tours are mostly not masked, and they decided it was time to try,” said Charlotte St. Martin, the president of the Broadway League. “This is not an easy decision — there are more people that want masks off than on, but plenty still want them on — and we’re encouraging people that have any concerns to wear their masks.”

St. Martin said the theater owners would continue to meet weekly to assess the health situation and are open to reimposing the mandate if necessary. “We’re going to see how it goes,” she said.

574.  The return to office orders are causing a revolt.

         Q:  I am ordered to return to work in my office.  What’s the situation elsewhere? 

         A:   After more than two years of remote work, more and more office workers are being called back to their cubicles. Many are not having it.  So reports Jonathan Wolfe on June 17 in the New York Times.  Office occupancy is still under 50 percent of its pre-pandemic levels across major cities. Back at the beginning of 2021, when executives were asked about the share of their workers who would be back in the office five days a week in the future, they said 50 percent. Now they’re saying 20 percent. So, you’re really seeing a lot of the optimism around return-to-office plans kind of disappearing.  Last summer and fall, there were a lot of companies that set return-to-office days and then had to delay them because of Covid surges. Even this spring, some companies are again reacting to Covid’s spread by delaying return-to-office dates. And, for a lot of workers, the more return-to-office plans get delayed or suspended, the less rigid they seem.  We’re also in a tight labor market, so workers are feeling empowered.  Another aspect of this is that the longer people work from home, the more attached they get to the habits they’ve formed — like not having to commute and being able to approach their schedules with a little more flexibility.

Some employers that initially planned for more sweeping office reopenings are now embracing flexibility.  We have seen, particularly in financial services, companies that are sticking with hybrid rules, like three days in the office and two at home.  There was a survey in January from the Pew Research Center in Washington DC that found that 60 percent of workers whose jobs could be done at home wanted to keep working remotely most or all of the time. So, we’re definitely seeing a clash between executives, managers, and some workers who really want to be back, and a lot of other people who are attached to the flexibility that working from home allows. It’s an interesting tension. Maybe we’ll get more answers this summer or in early fall.