Illustration by Sarah Grillo/Axios
Iâ€™ve been thinking about Brady Sluder lately.
You may not remember his name, but you know who he is: early on in the pandemic, he was the face and voice of reckless youth, the young Florida spring-breaker from Ohio who asserted defiantly in a CBS news interview that, â€śIf I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day, Iâ€™m not going to let it stop me from partying.â€ť
Pivoting from anxiety to outrage, the media went berserk, and within days young Brady reappeared on Instagram, properly chastened, for his auto-da-fĂ©, posting that he â€ścanâ€™t apologize enough,â€ť and vowing to â€śuse this as motivation to become a better person, a better son, a better friend, and a better citizen.â€ť
Brady was one of the pandemicâ€™s first heretics, and then its first penitent. Whether he was sincere, or just got some good crisis PR advice, today he looks like a paragon of maturity and personal responsibility compared to the 25% of Americans who remain entirely unvaccinated, the 37% who are only partially vaccinated, and the 78% who are not yet boosted.
Nor does it speak well of the judgment and accountability of red-state officials like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, who not only refuse to implement vaccine mandates, but enact laws or issue executive orders expressly prohibiting government from issuing vaccine passports or businesses from requiring them. And who then turn around and attack Joe Bidenâ€”who oversaw the distribution of more than 500 million doses of vaccine and signed into law a $1.9 trillion COVID relief billâ€”for not doing enough to end the pandemic (as they ungratefully spend the relief money from the federal legislation they had previously opposed.)
Brady also came to mind because Iâ€™m struggling with a millennial son experiencing pandemic burn-out. After spending his entire first year of graduate school on a laptop, isolated in his bedroomâ€”which surely would have driven me insane, I freely admitâ€”his campus has finally reopened to in-person learning again. Free at last! Free at last! Heâ€™s able to meet, work and socialize with his professors and fellow students. Heâ€™s moved out and is sharing an apartment downtown with two grad-school roommates, discovering what itâ€™s like to be young and living independently in an urban core bustling with activity. â€śLiberatingâ€ť doesnâ€™t begin to cover it.
Heâ€™s sanguine about the on-campus requirements for proof of vaccination, frequent PCR testing (the more accurate one), and indoor masking. I remind him how universities must go above and beyond to reassure anxious students and their even more anxious parents that schools, acting in loco parentis, are fully and directly responsible for the lives and health of their students.
But off-campus, heâ€™s fed up and chafing under the continuing restriction and inconvenience of constantly changing f ederal, state, and local public health measures, which seem to be straying further and further from any sensible and consistent public health principles. It started in mid-May 2021 with the CDCâ€™s incoherent new policy of recommending that vaccinated people no longer needed to mask up indoorsâ€”with nothing beyond â€śthe honor systemâ€ť to ensure that un-maskers were, in fact, properly vaccinated. It was instantly apparent that the first people to go without masks were most likely to be unvaccinated (already lacking in both social responsibility and common sense), while those retaining their masks were more likely the hyper-cautious, fully vaxxed and socially responsible ones. The Biden administration compounded the problem with its precipitous â€śmission accomplishedâ€ť triumphalism, brushing aside concerns about verification or mixed messages.
Less than a month later, the Delta variant emerged in the U.S., and soon after, new infections of this highly transmissible and potentially more serious strain surged. Despite the fact that existing vaccines were effective against Delta, stubborn anti-vaxxers still refused to take their shots. By the end of July, the CDC had reversed field and urged everyone, vaxxed or not, to once again mask up indoors.
Just after Thanksgiving, we got hit with the Omicron variant, even more transmissible yet less severe, especially for those vaxxed and boosted. But experts point out that with cases more than doubling from winter 2020, even if only half the newly diagnosed cases end up in the hospital, thatâ€™s still more people hospitalized. With more healthcare workers falling ill and leaving facilities understaffed, those still on duty are burning out more quickly, putting the whole healthcare system at risk of breaking down and increasingly unable to treat other patients. In the midst of all this, fluctuating CDC guidance about shortened isolation periods and more frequent testingâ€”when tests may not be available, and delays in results can leave infected and infectious people out on the streetâ€”only adds to public frustration. Worse, it creates fresh opportunities for Republican mischief to undermine the governmentâ€™s credibility and throw shade on Biden administration efforts to wrestle the pandemic under control.
Moreover, the faltering COVID response is not confined to the US. The World Health Organization has warned that more than half of Europe could become infected with the Omicron variant within the next four to six weeksâ€”a shocking estimate that could perversely lead governments to simply surrender on restrictions and control measures altogether, declare the virus endemic and something weâ€™re just going to have to live with, and leave people to manage their own riskâ€¦or not.
After his ritual apology, young Brady Sluder vanished from the news cycle as quickly as he appeared. But we would be in a far better position today had more people, including government policymakers, simply taken note of his humble and wise words back in March 2020, when the first lock down was less than a week old. â€śLife is precious,â€ť he posted. â€śDonâ€™t be arrogant and think youâ€™re invincible like myself.â€ť