The Pandemic is Over, But Pandemic Policies Are Not

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President Biden told us over a year ago that “the pandemic is over.” While the virus is still mutating, the worst is clearly behind us. Recent data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control’s COVID data tracker estimates that COVID-19 causes less than 1 percent of new deaths. 

While fears of fast-paced outbreaks or dangerous new variants are a thing of the past, policies and measures enacted during the height of the pandemic are slowly making a comeback across the country. For example:

  • Morris Brown College implemented a mask mandate for students and faculty members a week into their fall semester. Those on campus are also advised to engage in social distancing. Dillard College followed suit. 
  • Some elementary schools in Maryland and high schools in Alabama require their students and teachers to wear facemasks for two weeks after some students tested positive for COVID-19.
  • Two school districts in Kentucky and one in Texas shut down in-person instruction for a week due to respiratory illnesses. 
  • President Biden recently asked Congress to help fund COVID-19 vaccines for all Americans (again). There are no COVID-19 vaccines available that target recent variants, including the evasive BA.2.86
  • New York’s healthcare system now requires facemasks in all clinical areas “because of an uptick in COVID-19 cases.” Kaiser Permanente of California also requires its physicians, staff, patients, and visitors to wear facemasks in its Santa Rosa medical facilities after revising this rule in May 2023.

Why are stories like these making headlines while the data on COVID-19 hospitalizations, deaths, and cases strongly indicate the virus is no longer a serious threat to public health? As with many pandemic-related things, the answer has more to do with political incentives than public health.

In an article published in the Southern Economic Journal, authors Christopher Coyne, Thomas Duncan, and Abigail Hall note that infectious disease outbreaks prompt large shifts of resources to governments. Governments, with their own incentives and goals, distribute resources and exchange favors in ways that benefit them. Some of these favors involve passing measures that benefit special interest groups—including funding hospitals and supporting school closures. 

Schools, universities, and healthcare networks arguably benefited the most from government favors and funds during the pandemic. Not surprisingly, they are the first to re-issue old government mandates. 

Unfortunately, the precedent set from measures enacted to combat COVID-19 is always a threat to reemerge as long as COVID-19 is with us. Endemic viruses often become less harmful. Questionable policies are much harder to eradicate