COVID-19 cases are on the rise, but many Americans are over thinking of the virus as a crisis.
Even in blue cities, restaurants are packed with people, and many Americans don’t wear masks even on the subway or on airplanes.
Amid this national attitude, it may be extremely difficult for local or national leaders to try to reimpose any COVID-19 restrictions.
An Axios-Ipsos poll this week found just 36 percent of Americans said there was significant risk in returning to their “normal pre-coronavirus life.”
At the same time, cases are rising to over 100,000 per day.
About 18 percent of the U.S. population now lives in “high” risk areas where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urges everyone to wear masks indoors, and another 27 percent lives in “medium” areas where higher-risk people should consider wearing masks.
But experts say that the average American is not constantly checking the CDC risk levels in their area.
“People have checked out a little bit,” said Chris Jackson, senior vice president at the polling firm Ipsos. “People aren’t as tuned in.”
While CDC Director Rochelle Walensky this week called on Americans in “high” risk areas to wear masks, there has not been a similar push from President Biden, who has the biggest megaphone in the government.
Unlike earlier in his tenure, Biden has not been issuing sustained warnings about COVID-19, instead focusing on the war in Ukraine and efforts to fight rising prices.
This week, New York City Mayor Eric Adams (D), often seen as an ideological ally of Biden, declined to reimpose mask mandates despite the city rising to a “high” COVID-19 level.
“It appears as though there’s a new norm that is settling in our city and our country,” Adams said. “Variants are going to come. If every variant that comes, we move into shutdown thoughts, we move into panicking, we’re not going to function as a city.”
Andy Slavitt, the Biden administration’s former senior adviser on COVID-19 response, acknowledged the difficulties in responding given current attitudes.
“You have to understand that at this point in time that you can’t make people necessarily care more than they do,” he said, saying there are “fewer policy levers,” available.
He called for a “middle zone conversation” on masks, where people could be encouraged to wear them in certain instances even if they are not mandated.
Unlike in the early days of the pandemic, there are tools available that help make the virus more manageable and reduce the need for tighter restrictions.
Vaccines and booster shots provide strong protection against severe illness and hospitalization. The Pfizer treatment pills known as Paxlovid reduce the risk of severe illness or death by roughly 90 percent if taken within five days of the onset of symptoms.
But even funding in Congress to boost supplies of treatments and purchase updated vaccines for the fall is stalled, a sign of the diminishing political appetite for the COVID-19 response.
The U.S. passing 1 million deaths from the virus this week did little to shake up the environment.
The fall and winter pose an even greater risk as the weather gets colder, and as the virus continues to evolve. There is a potential for a new variant to circulate that evades the current vaccines’ protection even more.
Jackson of Ipsos polling said there is at least some room for attitudes to change if the situation gets significantly worse, noting that only about one-third of Americans said the pandemic is “over.”
“It’s not necessarily something they’re going to shut their lives down about, but when we ask point blank, ‘Is the pandemic over?’ two thirds say, ‘no,’ ” he noted.
Hospitalizations are still relatively low, compared with spikes earlier in the pandemic, but they are on the rise, with over 20,000 people in the hospital with the virus, according to a New York Times tracker.
Deaths are at a relative low, but there are still around 300 Americans dying from the virus every day.
White House COVID-19 response coordinator Ashish Jha this week said deaths have not risen along with cases in part because of the effect of treatments like Paxlovid, but those stores are at risk of running out without new funds.
“We’re using therapeutics to save lives; we’ve got to continue doing that,” Jha said. “At some point, we’re going to run out of the treatments we have. And without additional resources, we will find ourselves in the fall or winter with people getting infected and no treatments available for them because we will have run out.”
Slavitt said the administration’s main focus should be getting funding from Congress and working on updated vaccines.
“My own view is a little bit soured that human nature is such that, you know, whatever science makes easy, people might do,” he said. “But whatever requires even the slightest bit of sacrifice, or compromise for the sake of some other unknown person getting infected, is a much harder stretch and a much harder messaging.”