AUSTIN (KXAN) — A virtual town hall Thursday focused on a question many are asking right now — what will life be like once the COVID-19 pandemic ends?
Representatives from the University of Texas at Austin’s Dell Medical School and the Travis County Medical Society held a conversation about this topic.
The event included remarks from epidemiologist Lauren Ancel Meyers, who is the director of the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium. Experts relied on the modeling developed by Meyers and team throughout the pandemic, and now data could be used again to predict a number of things, including when to reopen schools, return to travel, attend festivals and tracking coronavirus variants.
Dr. Nancy Thorne Foster, the president of the Travis County Medical Society, and Dr. Clay Johnston, the medical school’s dean, moderated the event.
Within Travis County, 61% of adults ages 16 and older have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, leading the statewide average of 48%. Travis County ranks within the top 10 counties in Texas for its vaccine distribution rollout, Meyers said.
“We’re all breathing a little bit easier than we had been over the last year,” Meyers said.
However, she noted Travis County is still seeing geographic disparities when it comes to the pandemic’s impact on more vulnerable communities. The eastern portions of Austin and Travis County have experienced higher rates of infections — a severity that has particularly impacted non-white residents and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, she said.
Achieving herd immunity
As questions rise regarding herd immunity, which is when the majority of a population becomes immune to an infectious disease, Meyers said approximately 70% of people would need to be effectively immunized to help slow the spread of the coronavirus in Travis County. However, inequities in vaccine distributions can create pockets of lower coverage, affecting the overall immunity of a given community.
At this stage, Meyers said the evenness of coverage is critical. Children under the age of 16 are part of a substantial gap in coverage that will delay the onset of herd immunity, she said.
Regarding recent regulations released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlining face masks usage, fully vaccinated individuals can more readily resume masks-free outdoor activities with other vaccinated people. However, with pockets of adults unvaccinated and children not yet eligible, Meyers said fully vaccinated adults are still not at the point where they can easily forego indoor mask guidelines.
For individuals fully vaccinated, Meyers said the prospect of travel is more available, but will still require some precautionary measures and variables to consider.
Regardless of someone’s vaccination status, airlines and public agencies still require the use of face masks for travelers in airports, airplanes and on public transportation. She added travelers should also take into consideration the transmission rates of areas they are traveling to, especially when traveling overseas. Heightened surges and variant levels could minimize access to healthcare in the case of an emergency, a factor many need to keep in consideration, she said.
While caution is advised, Meyers said those fully vaccinated can begin taking baby steps toward resuming travel plans.
One potential trend that might emerge in a post-COVID world is the continued use of face masks during peak influenza seasons, travel and when individuals are sick. Meyers said the coronavirus pandemic might have ushered in a “new era of cautionary behavior,” adding the common use of masks in other countries might lead to a cultural shift domestically.
Similar to the flu season, Meyers said COVID-19 might become a milder seasonal threat that could result in COVID booster shots in the coming years.
The biggest lesson she said she hopes the United States takes advantage of is improvements to the national healthcare system that can address the socio-economic, racial and health disparities experienced during the pandemic.
Despite years of infectious disease research and mitigation preparatory measures, Meyers said the U.S. must overcome the “collective failure of imagination” caused by the pandemic.
“COVID took us by surprise,” she said.