Put on your mask and buckle up.
Two of the country’s leading public health officials have suggested that a return to normal, pre-pandemic life will be unlikely until mid-to-late 2021.
On Wednesday, CDC Director Robert Redfield told a Senate committee, “If you’re asking me when is [a vaccine] going to be generally available to the American public so we can begin to take advantage of a vaccine to get back to our regular life, I think we’re probably looking at late second-quarter, third-quarter 2021.”
Anthony Fauci, the face of the White House’s coronavirus task force, recently told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, “If you’re talking about getting back to a degree of normality which resembles where we were prior to COVID, it’s going to be well into 2021, maybe even towards the end of 2021.”
That timeline is downright depressing. Though Redfield and Fauci are likely being deliberately cautious, their estimations seem completely realistic. It’s difficult to imagine a swift transition between the current state and pre-pandemic normality.
Think, for a moment, about how vaccines might be made generally available and how that relates to kickstarting “normal life.” It will presumably be a challenge for states to make judgment calls on exactly how and when to return to normal life, because the point at which public health officials might give their blessing remains to be seen. Will it be when post-vaccine infections have plateaued, or when a certain percentage of the population gets the vaccine? What if vaccines are effective only half the time, a real possibility? HHS’s expressed mission for the vaccine is “ensuring that every American who wants to receive a COVID-19 vaccine can receive one.” Redfield has said the same thing. What about those who don’t want to receive a vaccine?
Here is the rub: If the polls detailing skepticism about vaccines translate into actual refusals, even if vaccination rates among more vulnerable populations are high in early 2020 and into the spring, it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which the federal government continues campaigning for more people to get vaccines once they are sufficiently available. If millions of people — perhaps tens of millions — go unvaccinated, the virus will remain. The question is how health officials might respond to that.
Moreover, there would be a natural incentive for the federal government to push for more and more vaccinations as a condition for encouraging more social normalization. Spending all of this money on developing hundreds of millions of vaccine doses and changing health guidance before they are widely administered sounds like nonsense. Ultimately, when people can go about their normal lives will likely require a final word from the federal government, even though states have the primary authority to decide. It’s still unclear under what conditions that final word might come.
In short, there is no “on” or “off” switch to all of this. Coronavirus vaccines have been widely considered as our way out of this mess, though exactly how they carry us across the threshold into normalcy is anyone’s guess.