Back to Normal? It Depends.

It truly depends on a multitude of factors—and on what our normal is.

by Monica Hendrickson, Peoria City/County Health Department
Monica Hendrickson, Peoria City/County Health Department

What a difference a year makes! We now have COVID-19 vaccines available for individuals five years and older, testing options can be found throughout our community, and our healthcare system has learned effective methods in treating COVID-19. Does this mean we can go back to normal?

I often get approached by community members, quietly asking when I think we can get back to normal. And I tell them all the same thing: It depends. It depends on how many individuals have immunity. It depends on how many children five to 11 take advantage of the vaccine. It depends if we see another variant that will negate all the good work done so far. It depends if our public health and healthcare systems can keep responding to crisis after crisis. It truly depends on a multitude of factors. 

It also depends on what our normal is.

If getting back to normal means back to a lifestyle with no capacity limits or protocols at businesses, where wearing masks is not a requirement, where we can celebrate Illini Basketball winning the NCAA championship with thousands of fans in attendance, then the short answer is… as soon as COVID-19 becomes endemic. So, our new word of the month will now be endemic—when we recognize that the virus will be a part of the naturally circulating illnesses in our community. We still need to push ourselves closer to that endemic point, or our new normal, and we can do that by getting vaccinated.

The vaccine has been available in our community close to a year now, but as I write this, our community is still only 53% fully vaccinated against COVID-19. With an increase in the number of eligible individuals—and now including children—our ability to get back to normal gets stronger and stronger. 

As the parent of two children under 12, I couldn’t wait to sign them up for the vaccination. While children have not been as severely impacted by COVID-19 infections, there are still more than 5,600 children nationally impacted by multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C) after having COVID-19—as well as other long-term impacts of the disease on children, including lung capacity limitation, fatigue and lack of focus. I wanted that vaccine for my children to reduce the risk of serious health issues for them. 

But I know for myself as a public health official with a strong background in epidemiology, getting back to normal is a bit more complex for many individuals. It’s not just science, but our understanding of the information, the impacts to our economy and the stress of everyday life. 

Over the past 21 months I’ve seen both the best and worst of days. The worst days as a public health professional are when we have to report COVID-19 deaths, the day we closed the schools, and the days people would harass and mock our science, healthcare providers and our public health workers. And then the best days—the day we ended stay-at-home orders, the day we received the first vaccines, and most of all, the days we receive thank-you cards for organizing vaccine clinics throughout the community, for providing daily and weekly updates on social media and through news briefings, or just for working hard to prevent outbreaks. 

Getting back to normal may be a very new normal for us, but it is not an impossible task, and I’m not discouraged by this. I have used both the good and the bad to push myself and to grow as an individual and a professional. While it may not be easy, it will come. 

So, for all those people asking me when we can get back to normal, my best insight is this: It depends. Please have patience and compassion. Getting back to normal is complex—much harder than just removing your face mask. PM

Monica Hendrickson, MPH, is the Peoria City/County Health Department Administrator.