People wearing masks walk by people dining in New York City.

Lifesaving tips on reopening the US

Updated 1609 GMT (0009 HKT) May 12, 2021

Jeffrey Sachs is a professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University and president of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. His most recent book is "The Ages of Globalization" (Columbia University Press, 2020). The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion on CNN.

(CNN)Widespread vaccine coverage in the US is rapidly reducing new infections, illnesses and deaths from Covid-19. States and cities are quickly removing restrictions on business and leisure activities. Yet, while the public enjoys the return to normalcy, governments behind the scenes should be ramping up public health systems to guard against another possible wave and to build more competency for the inevitable next epidemic, whenever it may arise.

First, a note of warning. Newly confirmed cases in the US are now below 40,000 per day. This is down from the peak in January, when new cases reached over 300,000 per day. And daily cases continue to decline, even more rapidly. Yet, just before India's recent surge to over 400,000 cases per day, that country had reported just over 10,000 cases per day as recently as early March. It's a reminder that the Covid-19 epidemic can spread from very few cases to a devastating surge at a terrifying rate, in just a few weeks.
Jeffrey D. Sachs
India's recent surge resulted from two factors: one, the government completely let down its guard in March, declaring that the pandemic was "in the endgame." The second is that the Indian public engaged in the breathtakingly risky behavior of mass gatherings, most notably the mass religious celebration, the Kumbh Mela, gathering around 3.5 million people, which should surely have been postponed. Large political rallies were also encouraged.
The US would seem to be protected from any such surge, given the mass immunization coverage in the US today (with 46% of the population having received at least one shot) compared with the negligible vaccine coverage in India at the time of India's surge (just 2% in mid-March with at least one jab, and around 10% now). Yet any sense of invulnerability, which many Americans displayed even before the arrival of mass vaccinations, would be misplaced.
Though almost half of Americans have received at least one dose, the unwillingness of many Americans to be vaccinated is strong. Unvaccinated people will continue to fall sick, transmit the virus to others, and in unlucky cases, die. The vaccinated population will indeed protect those who are not vaccinated by reducing the transmission of the virus, but sporadic and serious outbreaks are likely to continue, especially in places with low overall vaccine coverage. And, while the vaccines are wonderfully effective in preventing serious illness, some vaccinated individuals can become infected and may possibly transmit the virus to others.
Other more systemic risks are also lurking. As the pandemic rages in many parts of the world, India and beyond, the virus will continue to mutate. The existing vaccines may prove to be ineffective against one or more of the new variants. The vaccine companies are experimenting with modified vaccines and new vaccine regimens. There is also significant uncertainty about the duration of protection provided by the current vaccines (or past infection). Experience will tell us whether another jab will be needed in a year, or perhaps sooner, to prevent reinfection.
For all of these reasons, the arrival of the summer and the reopening of daily life calls for steadfast precaution alongside celebration, both from the public and by governments at all levels. For the public, there is one overarching message: get vaccinated. The lies of the anti-vax community are disgusting and must be countered. Voices like Tucker Carlson and anyone enabling him (like his employer Fox News and the advertisers) should face opprobrium and consumer boycotts, and perhaps class action lawsuits, for purveying reckless lies about vaccinations.
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Another message for the public is to be aware of and to heed the continuing risks. We should all avoid mass indoor gatherings; welcome the use by businesses of "vaccine passports" to ensure safe places for vaccinated people to gather; use face masks whenever in doubt; monitor one's own symptoms and possible Covid-19 illnesses among close contacts and get tested immediately if necessary, and heed the professional public health advice. Businesses should improve indoor ventilation systems to reduce indoor viral transmission. Too many Americans have been heedless of risks during the pandemic, and by doing so contributed to the confirmed death toll of nearly 600,000 Americans.
An even greater responsibility lies with governments at all levels. The federal, state and local governments in the US have so far failed during the pandemic