At every point in the existence of any problem that humans have been faced with – both ones we’ve solved, and ones we’re still working on – there was a time when that problem or challenge was completely new. And on the whole, we’ve figured out how to deal with most of them.
The challenge this time, lies in the fact that our current generation of public health problem-solvers – and quite possibly the three generations before that – have not lived through a large-scale community-spread pandemic. The only public health crisis on par with SARS-Cov-2 is that of Influenza – and as a highly virulent illness that has moved to “endemic” status – it provides us with a solid model of how our planet (and the U.S. specifically) deals with viruses as they become a part of our environment.
From 1918 until about 1960, we didn’t have the toolkit to efficiently protect the public – and even for those communities that had developed systems and solutions, they didn’t have the ability to quickly communicate those successes beyond their immediate geographies. While we faced similar challenges in the first two years of the current pandemic, we now have two years of at-home rapid and PCR testing data that have allowed our public health experts extreme confidence in our current and potential diagnostic strategies. Deploying these strategies in non-traditional care settings – like schools, hotels, restaurants, or really anywhere else – can allow any organization to lead public health efforts. Not only is it good for the safety of our community; it’s good for business.
Today, we know what works to keep case numbers under control. While we don’t always have full and immediate understanding of the mode and rate of transmission for COVID and its litany of variants, we know that the ability to test and isolate gives us the most control over our case numbers. The challenges lie within institutional and organizational ability to reliably test individuals in a way that provides PCR-quality results without waiting 3-10 days for answers. Current timelines often result in unnecessary isolations – leading to missed work, missed family time, and innumerable other consequences including mental health challenges.
For organizations whose individuals can stay home, a COVID exposure is not a world-stopping event. But for many, including parents of children in school, employees who collaborate in-person, or a guest of a hotel or cruise ship, the ability to have an immediate answer will become crucial to stabilizing our communities and regaining normalcy. Because we are an innovative and communicative species, we will not see a mortality rate relative to that of the flu, but to continue to see a downtrend, we must incorporate solutions that move with the speed of our life.
It will become the ongoing responsibility of our community organizations, both private and public, to test, evaluate, and communicate with its populations. This diagnostic data will create the ability to make large-scale decisions for both the protection of individuals and an organization’s ability to continue providing a service. Those services might be education, health care, consumer goods, law enforcement and social programs, or anything else we rely on for our day-to-day.
As we learn how COVID variants behave, we will gain insight that allows us to in turn adjust our propensity for risk, strategies for testing, and understandings of transmission. Like the flu, COVID will always be a concern for the immunocompromised. For the general population, it will become a nuisance, a post-it reminding us to get our booster, and another reason we cover our mouths when we sneeze – or agree that it’s okay to stay home when one isn’t feeling well. With employer support, we can champion smart public health choices. Like anything else we’ve faced, the longer we live with a challenge, the less of a challenge it will be.