‘Return to normal’ will be embraced at different speeds, health experts say

The June 15 reopening date for California when many of the current COVID-19 restrictions will be eased is a point of celebration for some but a source of concern for others, including health officials, who are working on messaging and preparing for potential spikes in cases.

National surveys have shown that significant portions of the country are anxious over the reopening that is just weeks away, which in most instances means masking will go away and most businesses will return to full capacity. Some have indicated that they will continue to wear masks despite state and federal agencies lifting mask mandates.

Dr. Anissa Davis, Long Beach’s health officer, said that after 15 months of messaging to stay away from people and to wear a mask, the transition from June 14 to June 15 will not be easy for some.

Davis said she expects to see continued mask wearing and more judicious uses of them, like when people go to large events or to the movie theaters, and that’s OK, because they still provide protection, she said.

“That’s not an easy transition in your head to make,” Davis said of the upcoming changes in health orders. “How you feel about it mentally is going to lag behind the actual openings.”

It’s not clear what the new health orders will include, but Davis said that social distancing and capacity limits are likely not going to be part of them as the city aligns with state protocols.

There could be testing and vaccination requirements for large outdoor and indoor events, and masking could still be required by employers. Mask mandates for employees is expected to be decided by a vote from the CAL/OSHA board this week.

Davis said the decision to open up is not because the pandemic is over but more of a balancing act as infection rates decrease and vaccination rates increase.

Over 61% of the eligible population in the city has been at least partially vaccinated, which means that it’s safer to resume normal life activities.

“We’re balancing the mental health effects, economic, social and financial effects of everyone staying in their house with the risk and horrible effects of people getting COVID, getting hospitalized and dying,” Davis said. “Right now we feel the balance is in favor of allowing you to do more things, have a life and improve your mental health.”

There is lingering concern that the reopening might disproportionately affect minority communities that haven’t had the same vaccination rates as others.

While nearly two-thirds of eligible Long Beach residents have had at least one dose, there are portions of the city that are stuck in the 40% range for vaccinations, with one area of west and central Long Beach having just 37% of its residents at least partially vaccinated.

Vickie Mays, a professor of psychology at UCLA who tracks physical health disparities affecting racial and ethnic minority populations, said that the modeling of current COVID-19 risks were not based on conditions you find in minority communities.

“Pacific Islanders may be gathering with other Pacific Islanders and while they may be only 2% of a given population, if they’re meeting with 2% and they meet with another 2% and the vast majority are not vaccinated, then you have a problem,” Mays said.

Mays said she doesn’t use the term “vaccine hesitancy” but prefers “vaccine concern.” Health officials need to enlist trusted messengers like pastors, physicians and community groups to answer questions and relieve doubts, she said.

The incentives recently announced by local and state officials, including the chance to win $1.5 million from the state, can work to push more minority communities to overcome those concerns, Mays said. That drive to provide economically for their families can push people who otherwise don’t believe in the vaccine to get vaccinated

“We’re gambling on the lives of some that the behavior of others will protect them,” Mays said of the June 15 reopening. “The only way we can bring that risk down is by more people getting vaccinated. That’s where those incentives come in.”

What happens in the weeks after July 4, when large gatherings are the norm, will be a good indicator of how protected these communities are, Mays said.

Heading back to normal will also require good messaging, said Dr. Rita Burke, an assistant professor of clinical preventative medicine at USC’s Keck School of Medicine.

Burke said messaging during the pandemic has been challenging because of how fast the virus has mutated, which required constant changing of guidance from health officials.

With new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allowing for fully-vaccinated persons to do away with mask wearing in most cases, it’s important that people understand that it is safer to go out into society now, Burke said.

The decision to open back up was based on vaccine efficacy and those already infected and recovered who have contributed to the lower case rates across the country, and it’s important that people hear that messaging so they can feel safe when they do reengage with society, Burke said.

“I think we’re doing a good job at explaining the what but we need to do a better job of explaining the why,” Burke said.

Despite it being safer to resume most activities, Burke expects that some people will continue masking and return to normal at their own pace. There is “no right or wrong” Burke said, and the reopening is going to require understanding and grace for those not ready to jump back into everyday life.

“I think we need to remember that we’ve haven’t had a pandemic on this level in over 100 years,” Burke said. “This is a defining moment for our society.”

Davis said the reopening is a good thing and an indication of the progress the state has made. Even if you take no precautions the chances of running into someone with COVID-19 is lower than any time during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic isn’t over until it’s controlled globally and Davis said “we’re not there yet,” pointing to ongoing outbreaks in India and Japan.

“It’s a new virus,” Davis said. “Variants are still a big monkey wrench that can be thrown into this whole thing.”

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.