This COVID Summer Is Nothing Like the Last One

Boosters are on the horizon, but cases are way up—and have been for months.

Tourists wearing face masks on a beach in Mexico
Beachgoers in Mexico (Hector Vivas / Getty)

This is an edition of The Atlantic Daily, a newsletter that guides you through the biggest stories of the day, helps you discover new ideas, and recommends the best in culture. Sign up for it here.

“People in the Northern Hemisphere are now neck-deep in a summer of travel—and so, too, are the coronaviruses they’re carrying,” our Science writer Katherine J. Wu reported in early July. As the summer goes on and the coronavirus subvariant BA.5 continues to spread, I checked back in with Katie about where things are.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

“A Bizarre Plateau”

Isabel Fattal: Where does America’s COVID-19 situation stand right now?

Katherine J. Wu: Things are not great right now. Based on the patterns of cases that we’re seeing, it’s pretty clear that we’re at a very high level, probably comparable to what we were seeing in terms of caseloads this past winter—among the worst caseloads of the pandemic.

It is true that hospitalization and death rates are down, but the more people you have infected, even a very small percentage can turn into an untenable number of hospitalizations and deaths. And every infection carries the risk of long COVID, or taking people away from school or work or their family. And the worrisome thing is, for the past few months, we’ve been at this bizarre plateau in terms of case counts not really coming back down and looking better.

Isabel: Last week, the Biden administration announced a plan to roll out retooled booster shots, which are expected to offer better protection against BA.5, in September. What’s your reaction to that news?

Katie: That sounds promising, but a lot still really needs to happen before then, and that’s what worries me. These vaccines are still being manufactured. They have not yet been authorized. The FDA hasn’t even seen data to show whether they outperform our current formulation in humans, and if so, by how much. Until that happens, the CDC can’t recommend an eligibility structure.

Is it going to go to high-risk people first? Are we going to have enough doses? We know that COVID funding is an absolute mess right now. And if we have limited doses, who gets them first? Are we going to have enough doses for young, healthy people to get them? Are we going to have enough doses for kids? Our youngest kids are still on their primary series.

The main worry has never been the technology. The concern is deployment, and making sure that people are able and willing to get these shots in an equitable way.

Isabel: What do we know right now about how effective these updated boosters would be against BA.5?

Katie: There’s not a lot of data to go off, so I’m going to be tentative here. I think we can expect them to be an improvement, but I can’t tell you if it’s going to be a 5 percent improvement or a 60 percent improvement. The other big asterisk on this is, what’s going to be around in September? Is it still going to be BA.5, is it going to be BA.6, or is it going to be another variant entirely?

The new vaccine is going to be half the original recipe and half something that is better tailored to BA.4/BA.5. And that, in a way, was a good bet hedge. That’s going to still give us the best of both worlds in terms of broadening our response.

Isabel: What is one thing the Biden administration should be doing in its COVID-19 response that it’s not doing?

Katie: I think the main thing is to stop with the vaccine monomania. Don’t get me wrong: Vaccines are necessary for this response, but not sufficient. It’s been bizarre to watch the Biden administration say “Get boosted right now” while also loosening guidance around gathering, masking, and distancing, and claiming that America can practically declare independence from the virus. These things don’t match up.

We need multiple approaches to reduce transmission. It’s going bonkers right now, and this is not a sustainable way to coexist with this virus. I’m not saying that people need to have mask mandates forever, but when transmission rates are this high, it is a good idea to think about masking, to think about testing more often, paying attention to who is up-to-date on their vaccines and making sure that our approaches are complementing each other. We still have huge issues with access to Paxlovid, access to tests, access to everything.

Isabel: What are some of your pet peeves about the way the pandemic is being talked about right now?

Katie: We still need to care, but fearmongering too much is also going to make people check out. It’s not necessarily productive to say “Everyone is going to get long COVID by next year” (long COVID’s important to pay attention to, but this almost certainly isn’t true) or “This is the worst variant we have seen so far” (yes, variants are continuing to evolve, but we also have the tools to fight them). Find a way to meet people where they are, get them to tune in, but also trust that they can handle nuance.

Isabel: What else should Americans be thinking about right now in regard to the pandemic?

Katie: I just hope that with all the news about different outbreaks and viruses, people don’t accept this as normal. This is not normal. This is a sign that our public-health responses are failing, that we’re not leveraging the resources we have. This could become our normal if we let it, but it shouldn’t have to.


Today’s News
  1. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi arrived in Taiwan, marking the highest-level visit by an American official in 25 years.
  2. Five states are holding primaries today. In Arizona, several Trump-endorsed candidates are on the ballot, including Mark Finchem, who brought the “Stop the Steal” movement to the state.
  3. A company that produces beverages for brands such as Oatly and Stumptown recalled 53 products that may have been contaminated.

Evening Read
A collage showing a photograph of the author's mother Mariquita
(Courtesy of Chris Perez Howard)

His Mother’s Life Was a Mystery He Needed to Solve

By Lenika Cruz

Writing about the dead is difficult business. Whenever I write about my mother, I spend a lot of time struggling to recall: How did she take her coffee? What music made her dance? When she laughed, did she throw her head back, like I do? My ability to answer these questions—to try to create an honest portrait of her on the page—is constrained by the five and a half years we spent together before she died. To fill in the gaps, I’ve interviewed family and friends, even built an archive of documents and photos. Each piece of new information—her U.S. naturalization certificate, her honeymoon pictures—is a gift, but it’s also a reminder of all that I will never know about her.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break
bubbles in the shape of a map of the US with a finger poised to pop one of the bubbles
(Michael Freimuth)

Read. A new cultural history of cheerfulness reveals its dark side.

Watch. Somebody Somewhere, an HBO Max show that’s been renewed for a second season. “Expect tears of sadness and of joy,” as our critic puts it.

Or try something else from our watch list of TV shows for short attention spans.

Play our daily crossword.


Covering the pandemic isn’t easy, so I asked Katie where she’s found a welcome distraction. Her answer: Rachel Gross’s new book, Vagina Obscura. “It’s a delightfully written dive into one of the human body’s least appreciated organs—one we shouldn’t be embarrassed to study or talk about, in all sorts of settings,” she told me.

— Isabel

This article has been updated to clarify that the company that recalled its products is not the sole maker of Oatly, but rather one of its manufacturing partners.