Aug 31, 2021 - Health

The U.S. needs a COVID goal

Illustration of syringe as a flag pole holding the United States flag
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

A huge reason why the pandemic response — or the lack of one — feels so chaotic right now is that the U.S. doesn't have a well-defined goal, experts recently argued in a pair of op-eds.

Why it matters: Policy decisions and individual behavioral choices should ideally be aligned in pursuit of an agreed-upon outcome, but as of now, we don't have one.

What they're saying: "We think much of the confusion and disagreement among scientists and nonexperts alike comes down to undefined and sometimes conflicting goals in responding to the pandemic," Harvard's Joseph Allen and Boston University's Helen Jenkins wrote yesterday in the New York Times.

State of play: The federal government is pushing ahead with a vaccine booster effort that some experts say is unnecessary, state and local governments are taking a patchwork approach to masking and vaccine policies and individual Americans are all trying to figure out how much risk they're willing to tolerate in everyday life.

  • School districts and businesses are trying to figure out how to handle — and are taking very different approaches to — the return to school and work.
  • But the U.S. as a country hasn't agreed on a set of outcomes we're trying to achieve, particularly whether we're trying to eliminate the spread of the virus or to greatly reduce the level of hospitalizations and death it causes.
  • "If the goal is getting to zero infections and staying at that level before dropping restrictions, one set of policies apply. If the goal is to make this virus like the seasonal flu, a different set of policies follow," Allen and Jenkins write.

Zoom in: The vaccination effort is similarly struggling from an undefined set of goals, NYU's Céline Gounder wrote recently in The Atlantic.

  • This ambiguity has become more problematic as more evidence emerges that the vaccines' effectiveness against infection has decreased.
  • "The public discussion of the pandemic has become distorted by a presumption that vaccination can and should eliminate COVID-19 entirely," Gounder argues.
  • "The goal isn’t to eliminate SARS-CoV-2 infections. We can’t, no matter how many booster shots the United States gives," she adds.
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