The Pandemic Is Over, Yet Death Is Still Here
How the end of the CDC’s indoor masking recommendation may go down in history
Historians may come to see May 13, 2021, as the effective end of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. The date isn’t a milestone in a downward trend of deaths or disease. In fact, that week saw about 4,300 Covid-19 deaths, equating to about 225,000 deaths if the rate were maintained over a year. Nor is the date significant because the U.S. reached a particularly high rate of vaccination — about two-thirds of the population are not yet fully vaccinated.
But pandemics don’t end when public health goals are achieved. Instead, historians tell us, pandemics end when a disease has become “an accepted, manageable part of normal life in a given society,” when there is a “return to normal life” and to “normal business practices.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, some public officials have urged a “return to normal” by denying the severity of the disease. Others acknowledged the risks but, in rhetoric and policy, shifted responsibility for public health protections onto individuals.
Even so, it’s important to recognize that there was a state of exception that allowed for the passage of important public health measures. Some states enacted time-limited nonessential business closures and required masks in certain settings. Some schools shifted to fully or partially remote instruction. At the federal level, Congress expanded unemployment insurance and Trump’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention restricted residential evictions (protections remained until a judge overturned the order in May 2021).
The public largely supported these public health measures and many wanted the government to go further in protecting them.
Then on May 13, 2021, the CDC gave its blessing for vaccinated people to stop wearing masks indoors with the exception of some particularly crowded settings.
One can debate the risks of infection and transmission among the vaccinated, but that is beside the point. While CDC guidance does not have the force of law, the authority that it carries can shape policy for all levels of government and for private institutions. In this instance, the guidance is a…