In Pandemic Year Three, still so many questions

Last November, thousands of people traveled to New York City for the Anime NYC conference. It was a joyous event, and not just because attendees dressed as characters from their favorite Japanese animation series. It was also for many people the first time they had been able to gather in large groups since the start of the pandemic.

But once people were back home, that warm glow quickly wore off. News broke that one of the first people in the United States confirmed to have the highly contagious omicron variant was an Anime NYC attendee. But as we report in this issue, the precautions that event organizers and attendees took, including requiring vaccinations and wearing masks, kept the gathering of 53,000 people from becoming a superspreader event.

We’re now in the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic. And alas, we still have to ask how we can keep people safe, at a convention, in a classroom or around a poker table. The record-shattering surge in cases sparked by omicron in the United States has waned, but the BA.2 variant is now driving surges in Europe and Asia. Is another wave on the way?

Scientists are just as tired of saying “not sure” as everyone else is tired of hearing it. But it’s easy to forget how much more we know now than we did in the spring of 2020. Back then, we were seeking answers to questions including “Can blood plasma from people who recovered from COVID-19 treat the sick?” and “Can fabric masks stem the coronavirus’ spread?” We were even wondering if we had to disinfect the groceries.

Now we know that plasma treatments aren’t much help, but research has shown that other therapies, including monoclonal antibodies and antivirals, do help fend off serious illness and death. We know that though a fabric mask is better than nothing, high-quality KF94, KN95 or N95 masks are far better at preventing spread. We know that improving ventilation indoors can reduce risk. And we know that the vaccines are a public health triumph, dramatically reducing the risk of death even from the delta and omicron variants. And booster shots help maintain that protection.

But still, so many questions. Should people still wear masks indoors, despite states dropping mask mandates? What does it mean that COVID-19 “changes” your brain? When oh when will we get vaccines for children under age 5? Do I have enough rapid tests to navigate my way through yet another wave?

And the ultimate question: When is this going to end? Unfortunately, there’s no off switch for the pandemic, our staff writer Erin Garcia de Jesús (and Ph.D. virologist) wrote recently (SN: 2/24/22). But as epidemiologist Aubree Gordon of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor told her then, even with new variants emerging to bedevil us, pandemics always end.

So the end is — maybe not near, but surely coming. I’m longing for the day when COVID-19 is not part of our breaking news lineup. Until then, we’ll be working hard to cover Pandemic Year Three for you online, in the magazine and in our weekly Coronavirus Update newsletter.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.