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Pandemics Don’t Really End

For the past few months, our PODCAST-19 team has been grappling with how best to report on the pandemic. A lot has changed since we started this podcast in May 2020. Globally, we’ve invented multiple, effective vaccines; we’ve learned how to care for patients better in hospitals; and we’ve mobilized a massive public health effort to fully immunize over 56 percent of eligible Americans

But a lot has also stayed the same. As vaccines get rolled out in rich countries, I hear an echo of the conversations we had in early 2020. Who — both in the U.S. and around the globe — has the right to even the most basic levels of medical care? And how much risk and how many deaths are we willing to accept in order to get back to business?

That recursive loop of the pandemic news cycle has made it difficult to find a way forward for PODCAST-19. And so, even though we know the pandemic is far from over for so many, this is the last episode of PODCAST-19. We’ve decided to sunset the show, but our team will be writing articles and making videos to continue bringing you the most important pandemic news. You can listen to the final episode of PODCAST-19 or read the transcript below.

FiveThirtyEight
 

Anna Rothschild: We’ve really struggled with whether now is the right time to end the show. We’re aware that COVID-19 isn’t over. On July 5, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that England would drop mask mandates and social distancing by mid-July, while acknowledging that things could get worse in the U.K. before then:

Boris Johnson: There could be 50,000 cases detected per day by the 19th. And we must reconcile ourselves, sadly, to more deaths from COVID.

Anna Rothschild: I mean, that just feels like déjà vu.


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What is over is the pace of innovation. For a year, practically the whole world was focused on solving one big problem. Now we have the tools to solve that problem, and we’re often not using them. During the pandemic, PODCAST-19 has brought you the biggest COVID stories every week or two. But where does a show go when the world keeps having the same conversations again and again?

And so we’ve decided to let the show rest for a while, and will likely leave it in hibernation for far longer. 

Closing the show has made us think more about endings. So a couple weeks ago, I asked a medical historian …

Anna Rothschild: Do pandemics end?

Keith Wailoo: They do end. But in different ways. The tail of a pandemic really depends on so many factors, on the nature and effectiveness of our interventions, the speed of its transmission. Just like the way epidemics come into being reveal social inequalities, the way they end also reveals these fracture lines in society. 

Keith Wailoo is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He studies pandemics.

An illustration of two hands holding a petri dish with COVID-19 virus in it.

related: How Science Moved Beyond Peer Review During The Pandemic Read more. »

Keith Wailoo: So, for instance, AIDS is still with us. The data from a couple years ago was that we had 35,000 new cases of HIV. That’s compared to about 80,000 a year in the 1990s. So, while a major drop, but not a drop to zero by any means. Back then, in the 1990s, HIV-AIDS was overwhelmingly white. Today, amongst the new cases, 42 percent Black Americans and about 21 percent Latinx. So the inequalities are particularly stark. The epidemic has been transformed in such a way that some people can see an epidemic is over, while others are still really living with the devastating implications.

Anna Rothschild: I’m a privileged white woman in a city with a high rate of vaccination. My life today looks and feels very similar to my pre-pandemic life. I have at least one person in my inner circle who hasn’t been vaccinated and probably never will be, and I’m still grappling with what that will mean for our relationship. But otherwise, the biggest remnants of the pandemic for me are that I still wear a mask in most indoor public places and I still work from home.

But for most people in the world, the pandemic is not over. According to the World Health Organization’, last week marked the fourth consecutive week where, globally, cases increased. And it was the first week in over two months where there was an increase in deaths. Cases are on the rise in America, too. In parts of Missouri, Florida, Texas and other states, we’re seeing hot spots flare up where vaccination rates are low. 

And then there’s the delta variant. It’s driving a new surge of deadly, more contagious infections, both in rich countries and in the global south, which remains largely unvaccinated. In India alone, over 400,000 people have died from COVID, many of them since this spring, when the delta variant swept the country.

Jonathan Li: This delta variant is more dangerous, transmits faster than these other variants, and can really seek out the most vulnerable parts of the population — those who are unvaccinated, those who are potentially immunosuppressed, right, at risk of infection — and really target those populations.

Anna Rothschild: That’s Dr. Jonathan Li, a professor of medicine at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. You’ve heard him on the show before. He’s the doctor who found multiple COVID variants within one patient.

Jonathan Li: We live, luckily, in the United States, where we have widespread access to vaccines, where anyone who wants it can get it. But I think that we shouldn’t be too complacent about that. As we’ve seen, these variants, they can arise in Europe, South Africa, South America, Asia, so anywhere in the world where there’s lower rates of vaccination, these variants can arise, and they can pose a threat to vaccine efficacy, even here in the U.S. 

Anna Rothschild: The listeners of PODCAST-19 know all too well what it will take to overcome this pandemic: The world needs to get vaccinated as soon as possible — and that includes the billions of people who still don’t have access to vaccines. To do so, we have to break through structural racism, corporate greed and political inaction — things we hoped we could bury during COVID but which the pandemic only laid bare. 


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We know it’s important to keep reporting on COVID in order to hold the powers that be accountable. And I want to assure you that we will be — just not on this podcast. Maggie Koerth will continue to write articles on FiveThirtyEight.com, and I’ll be making videos about the pandemic over on FiveThirtyEight’s YouTube channel. Right now, that’s the way we think we can tell the stories that matter most.

So this isn’t goodbye. It’s just a change of address. We hope to see you there. 

I thought it would be fitting to end this episode with some good news, as we used to do in the early days of PODCAST-19. You might remember Judy Stokes and Ian Haydon, a mother and son who both participated in the Moderna vaccine trials. Ian was in a phase one study, where he was given the highest dose Moderna was testing. He had a severe reaction, and even though it was only short-term, the company dropped that dose from further tests. He’s since entered another clinical trial, to test a Moderna booster shot. Judy, Ian’s mother, participated in a phase three trial, despite the fact that her partner was skeptical of vaccination.

Anna Rothschild: When we spoke last time, you also told us that your partner was a bit vaccine-hesitant? Did he end up getting the COVID vaccine?

Judy Stokes: He was wondering if you would ask that! Yes, he did. He just did. And got knocked out by that second dose reaction. He’s still a little unsure about vaccines. But it’s hard to say this does not have an effect when the numbers are shooting downward.

Anna Rothschild: What are your biggest plans for the next year now that you’re vaccinated?

Judy Stokes: Oh, I’m traveling again. And my son Ian got engaged. 

Anna Rothschild: Oh, congratulations! 

Judy Stokes: They’re getting married in September in Seattle. And that’s one of my first trips. So, it’s primarily family reuniting, family celebrations.

We all want to spend time with the people we love without fear of COVID. And we’re extraordinarily lucky that in just a year and a half, we’ve found a way to make that a reality. These days I often worry that we’ll squander the advantage that vaccines have afforded us. But people like Ian and Judy and her partner give me hope.

I’m Anna Rothschild. Our executive producer is Chadwick Matlin. Our producer, Sinduja Srinivasan, has been the driving force behind the show for almost a year now. She is heading off to the audio workshop SALT in the fall, and I am just so excited to see where she goes after that. If you ever get a chance to work with her, please take that opportunity. You won’t regret it.

I’d also like to give a shoutout to PODCAST-19’s former producer, Jake Arlow, who published her first middle-grades book, “Almost Flying!” in June. Congratulations, Jake — we’re really proud of you.

Finally, thanks to you, our listeners, for tuning in for the past year. We are so grateful to you all for your feedback and comments. We’ve really loved making the show for you.


Dr. Fauci on life post-vaccine and Biden’s approach to the pandemic | FiveThirtyEight


How White House economists are thinking about COVID-19 relief | FiveThirtyEight

Anna Rothschild is FiveThirtyEight’s senior producer for video.

Sinduja Srinivasan is PODCAST-19’s producer.

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