Feb 18, 2022 - Health

America's rapid — yet unequal — pandemic off-ramp

Illustration of a mask with the word "exit" punched out to look like an exit sign.

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

America is accelerating toward a return to pre-pandemic life, though millions of people aren't yet comfortable abandoning pandemic precautions — or they feel downright threatened by the rapid reversal.

Why it matters: For the majority of Americans — particularly vaccinated ones — the virus no longer poses a severe threat to their health, at least for now. But that isn't uniformly true.

Driving the news: Businesses and policymakers across the country are removing mask and vaccine mandates, loosening COVID protocols and encouraging more in-person interaction.

  • Governors — including from many blue states — are lifting mask mandates, as are some school districts. D.C. has also lifted its vaccine mandate, and California yesterday announced plans for the pandemic's "endemic phase."
  • Employers are also dropping mask mandates and, in some cases, setting return-to-work dates, AP reports. The CDC has hinted it'll soon revise its guidance as well.
  • "We'll soon put guidance in place that is relevant and encourages prevention measures when they are most needed to protect public health and our hospitals," CDC director Rochelle Walensky told reporters earlier this week.
  • "We want to give people a break from things like mask-wearing when these metrics are better, and then have the ability to reach for them again should things worsen," she added.

The other side: There are still millions of immunocompromised Americans for whom the vaccines don't offer adequate protection, as well as millions more unvaccinated and unboosted Americans who are still at risk of severe infections. Young children still aren't eligible for vaccines.

  • Many Americans who are immunocompromised or have high-risk health conditions feel left behind as the country returns to normal, the New York Times reports.

By the numbers: Americans have mixed feelings about removing their masks, according to new Harris polling provided exclusively to Axios.

  • Just over half of respondents said they agree that it's the right time for states to begin lifting their indoor mask mandates, with Republicans much more likely to agree than Democrats.
  • And plenty said they'll still be masking anyways. Three-quarters of respondents said they'll keep their masks on if the public majority voluntarily does, and 70% said they'll wear a mask if they don't know whether the people around them are vaccinated.

What we're watching: The country is still under a formal Public Health Emergency until April. If the administration declines to extend it again, that will have big implications, including for the health system and the Medicaid program.

  • Hospitals are urging another extension.
  • "Unwinding the complex web of PHE waiver-authorized operations, programs, and procedures — which will have been in place and relied on for more than two years — is a major undertaking that, if rushed, risks destabilizing fragile health care networks that patients rely on for care," the Federation of American Hospitals wrote in a letter to HHS last week.
Go deeper