As mask mandates drop across the country and many businesses prepare to return to in-person work, some experts say we should permanently adopt many of the changes we’ve made in the last two years rather than reverting to the way things were.
Dr. Erica Pan, Deputy Director of the Center for Infectious Diseases and State Epidemiologist, and Dr. Jorge Salinas, Co-Medical Director of Stanford Health Care’s Infection Prevention and Control Program, spoke candidly with SVLG members about the state of the pandemic in March at a roundtable titled Covid Toward Endemic.
“We can’t just go back to normal – we need to be prepared,” Salinas said. “Even if there were no new variants, there could be another new virus that behaves in a very similar way.”
Talking through a detailed graph showing the number of total covid cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, Pan noted that the pandemic is waning. She noted that all the key metrics are going in the right direction.
“We are absolutely doing better. Everything continues to drop.” she said. “We are seeing good trends, including in the hospitals, too, which is very encouraging.”
Still, Pan and Salinas both urged that masks should not be cast aside – on the contrary, we should consider them a part of life going forward. Salinas recommended that businesses make masks available to workers, and that instead of rushing to get rid of them, we should find masks that fit, filter well, and are highly breathable.
“I think the new normal is masks,” Salinas said. “[Masking] is going to be part of our attire, and it’s highly effective.”
Salinas also urged businesses to remain open to hybrid or remote work, even as on-site work becomes safer. With side benefits including better work-life balance, reduced commute time and lower emissions from cars on the road, Salinas says we shouldn’t let go of the changes we have made in response to the pandemic.
“We always have to learn from these big events,” he said, adding, “The bottom line is that yes, we can do these three things daily work, hybrid model or completely on site safely, but we need to remain open to all those options.
Pan noted that many of the precautions we have taken against COVID-19 can protect us against future variants or other illnesses. But we are still learning about how we could have managed this pandemic better, and it has given us information we need to improve.
“It’ll be interesting to see as we move forward and how much people continue to adopt or not and what happens with flu. But I do think as an as from a public health perspective, we’re really thinking about this: How do we really broaden what we’ve built for this pandemic to improve our flu and overall retrovirus surveillance so we’re thinking about it more holistically?” she asked.
Variants that are increasingly severe or that can evade immunity are a major concern, said Salinas. “I think that what we saw with Omicron could happen again, a variant that can be transmitted even if you’re vaccinated and can lead to high incidence, two outbreaks in multiple settings.”
Both Salinas and Pan emphasize that the challenge is not over, and that we should view changes made to cope with the current pandemic as a “new normal” that will help us get through the next one.
“This is our opportunity to set processes in place to strengthen public health, to strengthen our base,” Salinas said. “Our businesses are our infrastructure to be better prepared for new variants, for new viruses, because I think that in our lifetime, we may see this as possible.”