In addition to this kind of systemic strain, the rise in cases also necessitates different calculations around personal risk. If vaccinated adults can still pass on the disease, that means they will likely begin to behave differently around their unvaccinated children and around elderly parents, for whom a rare breakthrough infection could be devastating. As the number of infected Americans swells, so will the number of those at risk for what is called long covid—the pattern of neurological, respiratory, and other symptoms that seem to linger in some patients after the virus has run its course. One large recent study based on records from the United Kingdom’s National Health Service suggested that, among middle-aged people who’d had covid, 4.8 per cent had symptoms debilitating enough to affect their daily lives for twelve consecutive weeks. Ellen Thompson, of King’s College London, one of the study’s lead authors, emphasized to me the significance of long covid: “The impact of that on work, education, and parenthood—it’s a big deal.”
covid after the vaccines, and after the Delta variant, is in some ways a different disease than the prior versions. Or, at least, it has different characteristics. Even people who carefully studied their own risks early in the pandemic, and decided what they were and weren’t comfortable doing, now have to recalibrate for different risks, the dimensions of which are not yet fully known. It doesn’t just feel different; it is different. Osterholm, of the University of Minnesota, said, “There has been so much focus this week on the transmissions, which is important. But that shouldn’t be confused with the incredible impact these vaccines are having, even in a surge situation. Cases may be going up, but you can’t dismiss the dramatic changes in the number of deaths.” Osterholm pointed out that, if the American pattern follows what happened in the U.K., then we will be through the peak of the Delta surge in three to five weeks—roughly, by Labor Day. By then, we should know for sure whether the altered relationship between cases and deaths has held. At that time, maybe, we’ll be able to breathe a little easier again.