Our Opinion: The case for optimistic caution
For months now, many of us have been living our lives with what is often called "cautious optimism."
Some of us have been sickened by the coronavirus, or have friends or loved ones who have gotten sick. Tragically, nearly 800 Oregonians are known to have died from COVID-19 or with COVID-19 determined to be a major contributor to death.
Many of us, though, have skated on through.
Most Oregonians, especially in the greater Portland area, are being responsible and wearing masks in public, as well as following guidelines on social distancing and avoiding large gatherings. Some still are not, despite a dizzying rise in case counts and hospitalizations that already has the tri-county healthcare system struggling to keep up.
Either way, many of us have come to grips with the reality that in a world where the virus is spreading in the community and won't be eradicated without a mass vaccination program, there is virtually no way to live free of risk.
The responsible thing has been to manage risk — using face coverings to reduce the amount of respiratory droplets that we put out into the world or inhale from others, for instance — while continuing to live our lives as we can. We take basic precautions and try to act responsibly, but we continue to go to stores, maybe restaurants, occasionally get together with family, sometimes go into the office even if we're nominally working from home, maybe grab a quick drink after work with coworkers, and so on.
All of that has been, well, not normal, exactly, but they are routines we have modified with the expectation they won't carry an unacceptable degree of risk.
And now it's nearly late November, and things have changed.
Late last week, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced new temporary restrictions as detected cases of COVID-19 spike across the United States and much of the rest of the Western world. Indoor dining has been shut down again. Once more, stores and pharmacies are being asked to limit capacity. Indoor gatherings should be restricted to no more than six people from no more than two households. The list goes on and can be found online at govstatus.egov.com/or-covid-19.
This announcement was, predictably, followed immediately by grumbling. We've been learning to live with COVID-19, so why are we going back into virtual lockdown?
Here's a three-part answer:
We haven't learned to live with COVID-19 well enough
The steps we've taken to reduce our risk are good. But too many people, even in Oregon, still aren't taking this pandemic seriously.
While Oregon's initial response to the pandemic was quite strong, and Oregonians' willingness to make sacrifices to slow the spread of the virus averted a capacity overload at hospitals in the spring, we never actually managed to crush the coronavirus altogether.
Even after the first peak in April, hundreds of new infections were occurring every day. The imminent threat to our healthcare system was addressed, giving us crucial time to ramp up our capacity, implement more successful new treatments, encourage the majority of the population to wear masks, and get more personal protective equipment out to essential workers and first responders. But the virus itself was still at the gates, keeping us under siege even if it wasn't bringing down the walls.
We've relaxed our caution since the early days and weeks of the virus in Oregon. That's understandable — we were presented with an immediate danger, we responded accordingly, and we moved past it. It's now been nearly nine months since the first case of COVID-19 was detected in Oregon, in Hillsboro, and even if the virus is never far from our minds, it's become something we live with rather than something to hide from.
Unfortunately, the flip side of that is…
The virus is more prevalent and dangerous now than ever
Scientists still don't have a firm handle on whether COVID-19 is a seasonal malady like the flu, but they generally agree that it transmits from person to person much more easily indoors. That may explain why case counts are now exploding out of control across the country, in Canada and in much of Europe — winter is coming, and it's no longer comfortable to spend time outside.
Here in Oregon, public health experts say that much of the rise in cases was driven by Halloween get-togethers. In Canada, cases began to rise not long after Thanksgiving, which in Canada is observed in mid-October.
Outdoor dining at restaurants is no longer an option. Social hangouts have moved from decks and patios to living rooms and basements. We were able to mitigate COVID-19 risks during the summer in a way that is simply not feasible now, and if we keep up the routines into which we settled during the warm and dry part of the year, our "cautiously optimistic" assumption — that they are not unacceptably risky — simply no longer holds true.
Beyond the seasonal change, here's some basic math: More Oregonians have COVID-19 now than they have had at any previous point in time. Your average risk of encountering someone with an active infection now is higher than it has ever been.
Since more people are getting COVID-19, that means more people are transmitting COVID-19, and since more people are transmitting COVID-19, that means even more people will be getting COVID-19. It's a snowball effect that can become an avalanche unless we change our behavior now.
As for how long it will take…
Vaccines are on the way, but it will take a while longer
It may not be accurate to say we are now in the endgame of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the endgame is, perhaps, now in sight.
Two vaccine manufacturers, Pfizer and Moderna, have now announced very positive preliminary results from their large-scale tests. (A third, based in Russia, has made similar proclamations, although some experts remain skeptical.) These results will need to be confirmed, but there is now widespread optimism that not only will these vaccines soon be approved for mass deployment, they will turn the tide against the coronavirus much faster and more decisively than originally hoped.
But we'll still have to wait.
Tens of millions of vaccine doses could be ready by the end of the year — which is just a few weeks away, hard as that may be to believe. However, healthcare workers are expected to receive the vaccine first, with later phases of deployment for the rest of the population.
Even if the vaccine news continues to be nothing but good, final approvals are promptly granted and the first group of Americans are inoculated in time to toast the New Year, it will be months before enough people have been vaccinated for life to start returning to a pre-pandemic normal.
We don't say this to discourage you or dash your hopes. We say this to encourage you and give you hope. The end isn't here, but it's near enough now that we can start planning for it. We now have as a good reason as we've ever had to believe there is just a few more months of this to go before things get much better. We've been doing this for eight or nine months — we can do a few more.
Considering that, can't we wait to take big risks? Can't we forgo the big family gatherings this month and next month, so that we can do them bigger and better than ever before next year, when it's safe?
It's tough to go backward, especially when it means sacrificing some of our most cherished traditions — bright spots in a dark winter, especially at the end of a very difficult year. But the sacrifices we make now are deeply meaningful. We just need to buckle down and get through this, with the promise of a better year in 2021.
The time for cautious optimism has come and gone. For now, we must instead embody optimistic caution. Brighter days are coming — let's do all we can to ensure we and our loved ones live to see them.
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