It’s been a year of March, a year of abbreviated living, of canceled weddings and Zoom funerals. For the lucky, like myself, life has taken place largely on a computer screen and a cellphone. But even I have felt lonely and isolated, despite the presence of my husband and three teenage children. My father lives in California; I haven’t seen him in a year. My aunt, who lives in Mexico, survived COVID, but we weren’t always sure it would be that way. I've never met my only niece. I have been in my apartment for an entire year from cold weather to warm and back again. I’ve watched the entire nine seasons of The Office three times. I’ve watched cooking shows, and fashion shows, and The Sopranos from start to finish. I’ve read numerous Trump books. And I am among the very fortunate; I haven’t had to risk my life to work in a hospital, or a restaurant, or a grocery store. I’ve been afforded the enormous privilege of staying home.
When the lockdowns started there were real questions about how long it would last. The 1918 flu pandemic killed 50 million people worldwide and went on for about three years. Traditionally, it’s taken between five and ten years to develop and test a vaccine, so it was unclear just how long we'd live in this state of (almost) suspended animation. How long would this new normal last?
But the MRNA vaccines worked! We have developed safe and very effective vaccines in less than a year, which have radically changed the pandemic’s timetable. Now with the emergency use authorization of the third vaccine from Johnson & Johnson, it's starting to look like America might have that hot girl summer after all.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is being heralded as the shot in the arm America’s vaccine program needs. It’s a viral vector vaccine and this technology isn’t as fragile as the MRNA vaccine, which means it doesn't need to be stored at the very cold temperatures that the MRNA vaccines require. It’s easier to distribute, less complicated to ship, and only requires one shot. It also has the huge advantage of being able to be stored in a normal refrigerator for up to three months, whereas the MRNA vaccines need to be used within five days or six hours once they’re prepared to be injected.
And that’s not all, because Biden invoked the defense production act—something that Trump toyed with but never did—the administration has gotten Merck (the loser in the vaccine development race) to use its factories to produce more of the J&J vaccines. And because of this partnership, we’re going to have enough vaccines for every American adult by the end of May. Since we’d originally thought we’d have to wait until the end of July, this means that Biden is running about two months ahead of schedule.
Now a lot of caveats before we get very excited about our Roaring Twenties filled with hugs and hanging out with our elderly relatives. We do have three highly effective vaccines, but America has both a problem with vaccine hesitancy (which is actually getting better as more people get vaccinated) and the politicization of masking and social distancing. Some Republican governors are already trying to reopen their states, despite having relatively low numbers of vaccinated adults. Texas Governor Greg Abbott, for instance, has decided to completely open up his state, though only 7 percent of Texans have been vaccinated. But even before that, Republicans were extremely slow to embrace masking and COVID restrictions. Fifteen Republican-run states don’t have uniform COVID restrictions, encouraged by Trump's cavalier approach to safety regulations. (Of course, the irony is that this week we learned President Trump secretly got vaccinated at the White House in January.)
Also, the COVID variants are a real problem: the B.1.1.7. (also known as the U.K. variant) is the biggest trouble maker because it spreads the easiest. Right now, the U.K. variant is the most problematic in Florida but eventually, scientists think it will be the most dominant strain. Luckily, the vaccines seem to work well on B.1.1.7.
So will we have that hot girl summer we all desperately long for? It’s certainly possible that we will have a summer of normal (ish) life, but to get there we need a few more months of vigilance. This means we’re all going to need to commit to continuing to social distance and wear masks.
If we do this, it could be a summer of hugs, meals in restaurants, airplanes, and elderly relatives. Yes, I’m going to meet my niece this summer. Yes, I’ll take my mom to dinner. Yes, I’ll see my dad, and maybe even go to Europe. When my teenagers are vaccinated, then I’ll really feel ready to completely jump back into “normal” life, though I’m sure there will be an adjustment period for them and for me. I’m ridiculously excited to go to crowded places and do normal, not-pandemic activities. I’m also extremely sick of carrying around anti-bacterial wipes which manage to somehow leak and get everything that weird anti-bacterial wet.
Someday soon, there will be movies and plays and crowded subway cars, but for now, I’ll stay careful and tentative. Hope is on the horizon, but this doesn’t mean hope is guaranteed.