Ten years ago, more than 36,000 Americans were killed by a lethal contagious illness. The next year, 12,000 more were killed. The same illness caused between 22,000 and 62,000 deaths over each of the eight years that followed.
This illness is influenza, also known as the flu, and in the United States it ranks among the 15 leading causes of death.
These days, thinking about the consequences of a normal flu season is quite fraught. We’re living through a century’s worst pandemic, one on a different order of magnitude from the flu. Some individuals who tried to refute its intensity in the early months of COVID-19, including then-President Donald Trump, reported that the flu was barely worse. That’s untrue.
The flu will soon, however, become a meaningful reference point.
In the coming months, as a result of vaccines and increasing natural immunity, COVID is likely to recede. Yet it’s not going to vanish.
“Some people have gotten this idea that we’re going to get to ‘COVID zero,’ ” Dr. Amesh Adalja of Johns Hopkins University told me. “That’s not realistic. It’s a fantasy.”
A coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2, causes COVID, and coronaviruses also circulate for years, causing respiratory and common cold infections. The planet will not, in the foreseeable future, extinguish coronaviruses, nor will it extinguish this particular one.
The rational aim, just like the seasonal flu, is to make it manageable. The vaccines, luckily, are doing that.
A case study is being offered by Israel, the nation that has vaccinated the largest share of its population. 602,000 Israelis who had received a COVID vaccine followed one recent study and found that just 21 later contracted the virus and had to be hospitalized. Twenty-one is not empty, clearly.
Vaccines are hardly ever flawless. But the COVID vaccines turn it into the kind of risk that people embrace on a regular basis.
Here’s a helpful way to think about the numbers in Israel: Just 3.5 out of every 100,000 vaccinated individuals were hospitalized with symptoms of COVID. By contrast, approximately 150 out of every 100,000 individuals are hospitalized with flu symptoms during a normal flu season in the United States.
And still, the seasonal flu does not put a stop to life. It does not prohibit people from traveling on flights, dining at restaurants, visiting friends, or going to work and school.
The vaccines will not deliver “COVID zero.” But they are on track to produce something that looks a lot like normalcy, hopefully, and maybe even by summer. The incredibly rare exceptions, no matter how much publicity they get, won’t change that.
As Dr. Stefan Baral, a public health researcher and infectious disease expert, put it on Twitter: “Risk assessment? Absolutely! Risk mitigation? Absolutely! Risk management? Absolutely! Risk communication? Absolutely! Risk Elimination? Impossible.”