Analysis & Comment

Protecting the Vulnerable

We offer a guide to protecting the elderly, immunocompromised and unvaccinated from Covid.

By David Leonhardt

With the Omicron wave receding, many places are starting to remove at least some of their remaining pandemic restrictions.

This shift could have large benefits. It could reduce the isolation and disruption that have contributed to a long list of societal ills, like rising mental-health problems, drug overdoses, violent crime and, as Substack’s Matthew Yglesias has written, “all kinds of bad behavior.”

But the removal of restrictions has downsides, too. Millions of Americans remain vulnerable to Covid. The largest group of the vulnerable, by far, is the unvaccinated, who have the ability to protect themselves and have chosen not to.

Another group of people, however, have done what they can to stay healthy — by getting vaccinated — and yet remain vulnerable. They include the elderly and people with immunodeficiencies that put them at greater Covid risk. According to the C.D.C., more than 75 percent of vaccinated people who have died from Covid had at least four medical risk factors.

Today’s newsletter focuses on five steps that can help protect the vulnerable as society moves back toward normal.

At this point in the pandemic, there is a strong argument that a targeted approach — lifting restrictions while taking specific measures to protect the vulnerable — can maximize public health. The right approach, Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, told me, involves “moving away from broad, blunt tools to more precision tools.”

The public conversation often misses this middle ground. It can sometimes seem to be a debate between doing everything to slow the spread of Covid and doing nothing, said Katelyn Jetelina of the University of Texas, who writes a helpful newsletter about public health. In truth, she said, “There has to be a balance.”

1. Vaccines and boosters

I want to start by emphasizing the importance of the vaccines, including the booster shots. Consider this chart, based on C.D.C. data:

Weekly hospitalizations for U.S. adults age 50-64

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