CHAMPAIGN — The stretch before New Year’s is usually a productive one for Black Dog Smoke and Ale House in downtown Champaign. Family and friends reunite there after returning to town for the holiday season.
That’s what owner Mike Cochran was gearing up for until he received calls, “day and night,” from employees who’d gotten sick from COVID-19 or other illnesses.
Black Dog offered less seating, but it surprisingly met demand. Cochran said business was down 25 to 35 percent from what he expected last week — probably from customers getting sick and being careful, he said.
When it comes to the pandemic and its effects, “our crystal ball broke a long time ago, and the new one has been on back-order due to shipping delays,” Cochran joked.
A new year has brought new precautions. State Farm Center is requiring vaccine or test to enter. Drivers’ facilities are closed for two weeks. The Esquire Lounge bar, “with heavy hearts” closed at 4 p.m. — on New Year’s Eve.
A year out from the advent of several effective vaccines — 204 million Americans, around 62 percent, have gotten their shots. Roughly 30 percent of those vaccinated have received a booster, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Yet the emergence of the delta and omicron variants in fall and winter, both known for their transmissibility, have wreaked havoc this holiday season.
Hours-long testing lines have snaked across the country, while states and counties, including Champaign, are setting new case records 21 months and change into the pandemic. COVID-19 patients — majority unvaccinated — are absorbing health-care resources.
“Our health-care staff are exhausted and really feeling the strain of the surge in our community right now with more people than ever in our hospitals, emergency rooms and ICUs,” said Carle Chief Medical Officer Dr. Charles Dennis. “This can have a critical impact on our ability to deliver timely, non-COVID-19-related care, especially in our more rural locations.”
So the question is: where do we go from here? What could the third calendar year of dealing with this virus have in store?
We asked Dennis and local epidemiologists Rebecca Smith and Awais Vaid to lay out their best- and worst-case scenarios for COVID-19 in 2022.
First, the hopeful: Omicron could burn itself out and prove to be less pathogenic, Smith said, and we could see cases lull near the start of spring.
Perhaps the emergency-use authorization to vaccinate the youngest children will be approved earlier than expected, and the Biden administration’s proposed rollout of rapid tests will go smoothly and help contain spread, she added.
“We are probably experiencing the worst-case scenario with the current wave, the pandemic however will end,” said Vaid of the C-U public health district.
Conversely, the omicron spike could continue to grow if we throw caution to the wind. Despite its seemingly milder nature and widespread vaccination, the sheer volume of new cases could continue to overwhelm healthcare providers across the country.
Vaccinations could stagnate, Smith said, and a delay in vaccine authorization for young children may persist, leading to more cases and spread in schools and daycares.
A poor testing rollout, with technical glitches and/or low uptake, could combine with the CDC’s new shortened asymptomatic isolation policy to “result in more people working while infected, eventually shutting down businesses more due to sickness than would have been solely due to the 10-day isolation,” Smith said.
Regardless of how the current surge pans out — the last few COVID-19 spikes have petered within four to eight weeks — endemic COVID-19, where cases remain in certain areas at a stable rate, will stay with us for “a very long time,” Vaid said.
In the short-term, vaccinations and boosters, indoor masking, testing and staying home, improved ventilation and personal hygiene are — still — our primary defense system. No variant so far has changed that.
“Without everyone’s commitment to taking the preventative measures we know it will continue to be a challenge to stop the spread,” Dennis said. “We don’t want to let this virus continue freely mutating and continuing to infect people and impact our way of life.”
‘Don’t know what’s coming next’
These days, Pastor Matt Matthews of First Presbyterian Church preaches behind a pane of Plexiglas, to a masked audience in the pews and dozens more watching a live-stream of the service at home.
He opts for it for the congregation members who are hearing-impaired, and wouldn’t be able to understand him otherwise.
“I look like the President behind bulletproof glass,” he said. “But change is the name of the game.”
For other churches, businesses, schools and more, “looking ahead” has often proved to be a futile exercise.
On the recommendation of the church’s own COVID-19 response team, led by a retired doctor, First Presbyterian has vowed not to have congregation-wide dinners until cases are “far lower” or until people of all ages have access to a vaccine.
“We want to include all our children, for us that’s an extension and a natural part of our baptismal vows we take,” Matthews said. “We raise them in the faith and support them. We would not be doing that if we had a congregation-wide dinner, and exposed them to COVID.”
The Stephens Family YMCA has had to adapt its exercise programming constantly to keep up with pandemic-era adjustments. Its mask mandate was temporarily lifted for fully vaccinated individuals, until cases rose again and state guidance changed.
Could more health precautions be on the way?
“Obviously there are things being discussed like requiring vaccination for entry, vaccinating staff or testing, reservations for classes and pool usage,” said Stephens YMCA CEO Jeff Scott. “We aren’t excited about any of these options, but we will do them if it is absolutely necessary to help keep the community safe.”
Rising cases haven’t quelled local interest in their facility: In the last 2 months, nearly 500 families have signed up for YMCA memberships. More aquatic classes were offered once it became clear that pool environments posed less of a risk for spread, Scott said.
Still, sports communities — especially school teams — are playing on pins and needles. Monticello’s high school basketball and wrestling teams have managed to evade COVID-19 pauses or cancellations, but after this week’s tournaments? Who knows.
“If you think back, we thought 1,200 cases in the state was a lot, and everyone was getting shut down,” said Monticello Athletic Director and Assistant Principal Dan Sheehan. “Now there’s 22,000 cases, and its like, ‘OK we’re playing basketball.’
“I wake up every day thinking ‘Oh, great, we’re going to get an announcement, there’s going to be some new statewide rules.’ You don’t know what’s coming next, and that’s what’s kind of scary.”
Espresso Royale General Manager Aaron Bradley would usually be on break right now, if it weren’t for staff members at a different location testing positive and going into quarantine.
“As a business, it’s about straddling that line between taking it very seriously and adapting to our new reality,” Bradley said. “We can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, the name of the game now is learning how to live in this world where COVID is a thing.”
What he’s concerned about, outside of the university community he usually serves, is how COVID-19 will continue to distort our information economy, or expose its flaws.
“We can’t move on to higher level problems, if we’re still talking about what two plus two equals,” Bradley said. “The pandemic would’ve been fixed if we didn’t have this problem.”
The grief of these last few years is incalculable. The virus has claimed more than 5 million lives worldwide, including more than 820,000 in the U.S.
Vaid, too, has lost close family and acquaintances to the virus. But even he can find reasons for optimism.
“Our scientific community is collaborating and innovating at scale never imagined or done before in history,” he said. “We are much better prepared and have many more tools to respond as compared to March of 2020.”
To some, the pandemic exposed cracks in institutions that needed upheavals.
“There were some parts of our educational systems that needed to be changed in certain ways and benefited from the sense of urgency that our pandemic caused,” said Franklin STEAM Academy Principal Sara Sanders, days before her school reopens.
Beyond health measures, officials across the board preached kindness. The mental health toll of this pandemic has been pervasive.
“While we don’t have the power to change what has happened, we do have the power to be humane to one another while we work through the ‘debris’ of this pandemic,” Sanders said.