There is another cause for concern, this one about what the virus might do to children themselves. Although the rate of morbidity in young children is relatively low, young children are also among the least-tested cohort in America. Fauci has stressed repeatedly in recent weeks that we know relatively little about children and the virus. For example, we still don’t know how frequently children get infected, or what percentage of children are symptomatic, or how underlying conditions may exacerbate or even alleviate the severity of the infection. The results of one six-month National Institutes of Health study, which enrolled thousands of families from 11 U.S. cities, are expected in December.
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But “we don’t need additional information to make decisions,” Hotez insisted. Right now, he said, there are at least 40 states in which schools simply should not open. “Remember, schools are not hermetically sealed … We need to reach containment first. It’s that simple.”
One of the strangest things about living through a pandemic is the lag in understanding of how bad things are, an awful mirror of the lag in deaths that come like clockwork after a surge in coronavirus cases. All along, this disaster has been simultaneously wholly shared and wholly individualized, a weird dissonance in a collective tragedy that each person, each family, has to navigate with intricate specificity to their circumstances. The despair that has seemed to crest in recent days represents another kind of lag—a lag of realization—and the inevitable end of hopefulness about what life might be like in September.
In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion wrote of the deepest and most personal kind of bereavement, the loss of her husband, but I find myself thinking of her words often in the context of the pandemic: “We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.”
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These losses will feel only more acute as the season turns. We are accustomed to marking the passage of time in sweet and mundane rituals—the photos taken for the first day back to school, the new sneakers, the clean stack of fresh composition books. Instead we are marking our time in numbers. No longer 15-day increments, but 154 days since we were all together. So far, 152,870 dead from the virus in America. We cannot wish away the pandemic, as much as we try; it will persist until we muster the resolve and the resources to contain it. This is our normal. Not forever, but for a very long now.