In May, after the CDC ended indoor masking for vaccinated people, President Joe Biden gave a speech that felt like a declaration of victory. Three months later, cases and hospitalizations are rising, indoor masking is back, and schools and universities are opening uneasily—again. “It’s the eighth month of 2021, and I can’t believe we’re still having these conversations,” Jessica Malaty Rivera, an epidemiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital, told me.
But something is different now—the virus.
In simple terms, many people who caught the original virus didn’t pass it to anyone, but most people who catch Delta create clusters of infection. That partly explains why cases have risen so explosively. It also means that the virus will almost certainly be a permanent part of our lives, even as vaccines blunt its ability to cause death and severe disease.
Eventually, humanity will enter into a tenuous peace with the coronavirus. COVID-19 outbreaks will be rarer and smaller, but could still occur once enough immunologically naive babies are born. Adults might need boosters once immunity wanes substantially, but based on current data, that won’t happen for at least two years.