Yes, the Pandemic Is Bad Again

Masks are reappearing and return-to-office plans have been postponed. Welcome to Delta’s whiplash.

A series of social-distancing warnings arranged in concentric circles
The Atlantic

Do you remember when Los Angeles, D.C., and other major cities didn’t have mask mandates? When tech companies had return-to-office dates in September? When the number of new daily coronavirus cases was coming off a month-long run of being at its lowest levels of the pandemic?

That was three weeks ago.

Since then, the feelings of progress, buoyancy, and even semi-normalcy from the late spring and early summer have dissipated, jarringly. Steeply rising case counts reflect the Delta variant’s contagiousness. They also correlate with a more private, psychological toll: the whiplash of realizing that, basically, the pandemic is bad again.

In early August—well before the colder months when the coronavirus thrives—many Americans, even vaccinated ones, are finding themselves with the same sort of anxieties they were relieved to let go of in the spring: If I eat at a restaurant, what is the risk to myself and others? What about going to my workplace? And what will restrictions allow me and my loved ones to do a couple of months from now?

Of course, the pandemic is nowhere near as bad as it was last winter, thanks to vaccines that confer high levels of protection against symptomatic cases of COVID-19. The 60 percent of U.S. adults who are fully vaccinated are substantially safer than the 40 percent who aren’t, even with the Delta variant circulating.

But emotionally, the near future feels uncertain again. Just a few months ago, I felt like the rest of the year was easier to visualize. Now a light fog seems to have descended, similar to the denser one that obscured the future for the first year of the pandemic. I’m back to feeling a mild sense of the “horizonlessness”—the lack of a firm reference point in the future—that was pervasive last year.

Even some experts are surprised by the swerve the pandemic has taken. Before Delta, Andrew Noymer, a public-health professor at UC Irvine, wasn’t expecting a significant resurgence of the virus—or a need to re-mask—until the fall. Earlier this summer, “I was out there saying that it’s okay to take off your mask,” Noymer told me. “And here we are seven weeks later—there’s Delta, and guess who’s masking at the grocery store again, even though he’s fully vaccinated? This guy. I feel the same whiplash.”

The particular cruelty of this reversal is that the state of the pandemic had seemed to be genuinely improving. “Interestingly, it’s often when things are getting better that people get restless and impatient,” Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, told me. “They can’t reach their goal soon enough.”

Fishbach pointed to survey data from a forthcoming paper she co-authored with Annabelle Roberts, a University of Chicago doctoral student, indicating that Americans who were eager to get vaccinated felt less patient waiting for their shot in the spring, when vaccines were tantalizingly close, than in the fall, when the timing of the rollout was unclear. “It’s very frustrating to feel you’re almost there but not quite,” Fishbach said.

Unfortunately, America isn’t “almost there” when it comes to the end of the pandemic. Noymer sees two possible scenarios for the coming months. The first is something like last year, with a summer wave that recedes and is later dwarfed by a fall-and-winter wave (though a smaller one than in 2020, thanks to the vaccines). The second is that the wave that’s building now is that big fall-and-winter wave, here earlier than expected, but also possibly gone earlier than expected. (Barring the rise of another variant, “I think the summer of 2022 will be like the summer that we were hoping for this summer,” Noymer said.)

Even higher vaccine uptake, Noymer told me, could change the course of the pandemic for the better—it would reduce infections as well as the likelihood that another variant arises. It could serve an invaluable emotional purpose too, by ameliorating the whiplash, horizonlessness, and other less quantifiable woes that add to the stress of living through a pandemic. It could help lift the psychological fog we have sadly become acquainted with, and have no wishes to return to again.