Responding to

"Now and then it's good to pause in our pursuit of happiness
and just be happy."

Guillaume Apollinaire
Now that vaccines are starting to get into people and the number of new COVID-19 cases seems to be declining, many of us are growing restless. We're feeling the urge to hit the road and travel, in search of the family gatherings or adventures we've all had to put on hold for the past year.

Last month, most pandemic forecasting models projected that COVID-19 cases would continue to grow through February. At the very least, the number of cases would plateau. Neither has happened. New daily cases have dropped, with the 14-day average having gone down 43%. Hospitalizations are down nearly 30% as are deaths from the disease.

The first question for most of us is why.

Behavior is likely part of the reason. More of us have finally gotten the hang of wearing face masks and maintaining physical distancing. Some researchers contend that more of us have chosen to hunker down in our homes, especially after the holidays, in large part because of the spike in cases that occurred just after the holidays. As Derek Thompson writes in The Atlantic, "Our cautious behavior evidently requires the impetus of a terrifying surge. In the spring, southern and western states thought they had avoided the worst of the early wave, and governors refused to issue mask mandates. Then cases spiked in Texas, Florida, and Arizona, and mask-wearing behavior in the South increased. When cases came down again, people relaxed, cases went up again." Perhaps we finally learned.

Another likely part of the reason is seasonality and it's beginning to warm up in some parts of the country (at least until last week). Many respiratory viruses are less virulent in the summer. As the days grow colder and shorter, infections accelerate throughout the winter. And then they decline again as the days grow longer. Many viruses are not well designed to thrive in warmer, sunnier, and more humid outdoor areas because the fatty shell that protects them breaks down more easily in warmer environments. Michael Mina, a Harvard epidemiologist notes, however, that “we don’t fully appreciate or understand why seasonality works.”

But seasonality isn’t just about the weather. We do different things when the temperature changes. As colder weather sets in, we trade the outdoors for the indoors, making it easier for the virus to pass from one host to another. We also close our windows and cut off fresh outside air, meaning the air we're breathing is full of unwanted infectious agents. As the weather warms, we move outdoors again, open our windows, and breathe in more fresh air.

Partial immunity and the growing rate of vaccinations are also likely reasons that cases are declining. The coronavirus needs bodies in order to survive and replicate. It now has access to fewer welcome hosts. The CDC estimates that between 15 and 30% of American adults have already been infected with COVID-19. Since people recovering from infection typically develop some immunological protection, the number of antibodies in people may limit the original coronavirus’s path forward. Additionally, vaccinations have finally begun to ramp up significantly. The New York Times reported that 56.3 million doses of vaccine had been given as of last Thursday. And, while they can't account for the dramatic decrease in the rate of disease, vaccinations can account for the decrease in hospitalizations and deaths. Remember that preventing infection is not all the COVID vaccines are intended to do (and we don't yet know how well they do that). Among those infected, they also reduce symptomatic illness. And among those with symptoms, they reduce long-term hospitalization and death.

So, that explains the decrease in cases. But, will the decline continue?

According to Derek Thompson, who wrote The Atlantic article, the answer is likely yes.

Assuming the CDC is correct, roughly 25% of adults have COVID-19 antibodies from a previous infection. Add to that 10% of adults have received vaccinations since December. Allowing for a small overlap between the two groups, approximately one-third of adults currently have some sort of protection, either from a previous infection or from one or both doses of a vaccine. At the current pace of 1.7 million vaccinations per day, nearly 12 million people are added to the number every week. The outlook is even better for older Americans, since vaccination efforts are currently targeting people over 50, (who have also accounted for the majority of hospitalizations). "Even if the rise of new variants slows the decline in cases, it is unlikely to lead to a sharp rise in mortality and hospitalizations," Derek contends.
And this brings me back to my original observation that many of us are getting restless to travel. With older Americans being among the first in line to receive COVID-19 vaccinations, older travelers are evidently leading a wave in new travel bookings, according to The New York Times. "Americans over 65, who have had priority access to inoculations, are now newly emboldened to travel — often while their children and grandchildren continue to wait for a vaccine. For the silver-haired, it’s a silver lining."

A January travel network survey found that older people are more eager to travel in 2021 than other age groups, and also more likely to link the timing of their travel to when they receive their vaccinations. “There’s a lot of pent-up desire among seniors, and a sense of life running out,” says Jeff Galak, of Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. “There’s a theory called mortality salience - when your own mortality is brought to mind, behaviors change. We’re going to see upgrades to better cabins on cruise ships, and booking of better hotels.”

Public health experts advise caution, however. Even after we've received both doses of our COVID vaccinations, the recommendations for masking and physical distancing remain the same. “The vaccine is still not 100% effective, and if you’re living basically in a sea of virus, it’s good to be very careful even though you’ve been vaccinated,” offers Dr. Manfred Green, Director of Public Health at the University of Haifa. “We’re still not sure if someone who is vaccinated could acquire the disease without getting sick, meaning the virus would be with them and they could transmit it to someone else.”

Here at home, the Governor's latest executive order no longer requires a 14-day quarantine period for people traveling into New Mexico, but it does recommend both a quarantine period and a COVID test. For Kitchen Angels volunteers who are ready to take to the road (or the skies, or the seas), please bear in mind that we may require that you refrain from any on-site volunteering for two weeks following your return from traveling. Each situation will be considered on a case-by-case basis. We simply can't take the risk. But that doesn't mean you can't send us pictures from where ever you visit.

While we continue to move slowly and cautiously toward spring, thank you for all that you're doing to stay safe and healthy.

I remain forever grateful for all that you do.
Thank you for your vigilance. We want you to stay safe,
healthy, and informed.