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With the end of the pandemic very much in sight (nearly a third of the US population has received their vax! more states are opening up eligibility to all adults! vaccinated people can travel now!), many are beginning to wonder, what will the end actually look like? Will there be sprawling orgies in the open streets? Are we going to kiss each other upon greeting? Will there be a special day upon which someone official rings a giant bell and declares this thing over?
Based on emerging debate, it appears that the pandemic will end not with a bang, but with a bicker. Just as the past year has been filled with concern trolling and scolds and then scolds of the scolders, the end of the pandemic is shaping up to be the same. The current breakdown looks something like this: A small but extremely vocal cohort of folks say they will change none of their pandemic behaviors upon being fully vaccinated, while a larger, equally vocal group of people say continuing to do things like disinfect surfaces and avoiding people, post-vax, is stupid and pointless.
The CDC has been fairly unambiguous about the fact that people who are vaccinated should keep wearing masks generally, and made a few concessions earlier on, like endorsing vaccinated people to visit a single household of unvaccinated people without masks, as long as no one was at risk for severe illness. Over this past weekend, it added a bunch more concessions to its list, including saying it’s cool for vaccinated people to resume activities like travel, without needing to quarantine or get a test on either end of the trip. As more people get vaccinated, the number of gray areas should theoretically shrink. But if we get stuck in a limbo where lots of people are vaccinated, but not enough for herd immunity, we might be in for yet more months of arguments over what people should or shouldn’t be doing. Should we all keep wearing masks on public transit, even when, say, 50 percent of the population is vaccinated? What do we do about Thanksgiving if grandma is vaccinated but grandpa is a crazed evangelical who refuses to get vaccinated and therefore is still at high risk for severe infection? What do we do if 67 percent of our friend group is vaccinated, one person has asthma, and we all want to go to Cabo this summer? Et cetera, et cetera; the possible situations we can roll out before us are endless.
The desire to anticipate the future is understandable, since we just spent a whole year not being able to think about anything but today. The blame for this cloying debate and needless future-prediction can almost fully be placed on the confusing messaging and a lack of complete information, still, about how the virus works in relation to the vaccines. On the state level, some places are fully reopened with no restrictions in place, suggesting the pandemic is already over (it’s not), while others are still in various stages of lockdown. Then there are rogue researchers and public health experts with big platforms, all with different opinions about the CDC’s guidelines. Vaccinated people are highly unlikely to develop a serious infection, but scientists remain hesitant to make a firm call on whether vaccinated people can or can't spread COVID-19 to others (though it appears unlikely).
The point is, all of that is a lot to take in. No normal layperson can be expected to properly interpret all of this; the current vaccine landscape is—and I’m sorry to use this example—most accurately depicted by that meme of the lady looking at the chalkboard full of equations and numbers. As of now, it’s impossible to say what the future will actually look like. But that isn’t stopping the scolders and scolded from trying to game out every possible scenario, imagining a future in which they are fully vaccinated, and already mapping out the various ways they’ll police the actions of others, should they, personally, find them wanting.
It seems that, as the U.S. crosses vaccine milestones and research continues, there is a lot to be optimistic about. The pandemic is not yet over, but the end nears each day and with each jab that goes in an arm. That’s cool and, as public health experts have previously told VICE, nothing short of a miracle. We are all googling “maskless vacation when,” but the real answer is no one knows yet. But we should stay focused on the real enemies (people who have never thought twice about COVID or worn a mask this entire time) who will have booked up all the tickets and Airbnbs by then anyway.Follow Hannah Smothers on Twitter.