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Five COVID Numbers That Don’t Make Sense Anymore

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It’s long past time to forget them all.

The past two and a half years have been a global crash course in infection prevention. They've also been a crash course in basic math: Since the arrival of this coronavirus, people have been asked to count the meters and feet that separate one nose from the next; they’ve tabulated the days that distance them from their most recent vaccine dose, calculated the minutes they can spend unmasked, and added up the hours that have passed since their last negative test.

What unites many of these numbers is the tendency, especially in the United States, to pick thresholds and view them as binaries: above this, mask; below this, don’t; after this, exposed, before this, safe. But some of the COVID numbers that have stuck most stubbornly in our brains these past 20-odd months are now disastrously out of date. The virus has changed; we, its hosts, have as well. So, too, then, must the playbook that governs our pandemic strategies. With black-and-white, yes-or-no thinking, “we do ourselves a disservice,” Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist at George Mason University, told me. Binary communication “has been one of the biggest failures of how we’ve managed the pandemic,” Mónica Feliú-Mójer, of the nonprofit Ciencia Puerto Rico, told me.

Here, then, are five of the most memorable numerical shorthands we’ve cooked up for COVID, most of them old, some a bit newer. It’s long past time that we forget them all.

2 doses = fully vaccinated

At the start of the vaccination campaign, getting dosed up was relatively straightforward. In the United States, a pair of Pfizer or Moderna shots (or just one Johnson & Johnson), then a quick two-week wait, and boom: full vaccination, and that was that. The phrase became a fixture on the CDC website and national data trackers; it spurred vaccine mandates and, for a time in the spring and summer of 2021, green-lit the immunized to doff their masks indoors.

Then came the boosters. Experts now know that these additional shots are essential to warding off antibody-dodging variants such as the many members of the Omicron clan. Some Americans are months past their fifth COVID shot, and the nation’s leaders are weighing whether vaccinated people will need to dose up again in the fall. To accommodate those additions, the CDC has, in recent public communications, tried to shift its terminology toward “up to date.” Katelyn Jetelina, an epidemiologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, prefers that phrase, because it “allows for flexibility” as recommendations evolve. It also more effectively nods at the range of protection that vaccination affords, depending on how many doses someone’s gotten and when their most recent dose was.

But fully vaccinated has been hard to shake, even for the CDC. The agency, which did not respond to requests for comment, maintains that the original definition “has not changed,” and the term........

© The Atlantic

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