COVID: Are we ready to learn to live with it?

Top health care executives uncertain about the future

THREE OF THE STATE’S leading health care executives said on Wednesday that COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations are trending in a very positive downward direction, but they were divided on when and how people will be able to move on and learn to live with the virus as a part of everyday life.

Kevin Churchwell, the president and CEO of Boston Children’s Hospital, said he is not willing to accept a co-existence with the virus. “I’m not ready to learn to live with it,” he said. “This is a virus that is extremely lethal. Close to 900,000 people have died from this virus over a two-year period. So I do not accept the fact that we can learn to live with it.”

Kevin Tabb, the president and CEO of Beth Israel Lahey Health, took a more measured approach. “If learn to live with it means we should just accept the death and the suffering that has occurred and say there’s nothing that we can do about it, then I would reject the phrase learn to live with it,” Tabb said.

“But if learn to live with it means that we are now understanding that this virus will be with us in some way shape or form in perpetuity, then I actually agree with the statement,” he added. “The virus will not go away. The virus will be with us in different ways and shapes and will affect us differently over time. We as a society and we as a health care system do in fact need to learn to adapt to the different phases that we’re going to see with this virus.”

Anne Klibanski, the president and CEO of Mass General Brigham, said people have to adapt to a new reality. “We have to get around the mythology, which is what people want, of when will life get back to the way it was before. That’s a mythology and that’s a concept that needs to change,” she said.

“This virus is not going away,” she added. “There’s a war going on with mutations. There’s always something going on with variants. We don’t see this. It’s invisible to us, but we don’t know when the next variant will come, we don’t know what it’s going to look like, We have to be prepared for it.”

The three health care executives were interviewed virtually by Jim Rooney of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. The executives seemed to agree that the situation is improving and the pandemic may be entering a new phase, but they stressed repeatedly that it is very difficult to predict the future.

“We will get through this. We are already cresting on the other side of this wave. We don’t know exactly what the future will hold,” Tabb said.

Klibanski said the deadly Spanish flu of 1918 eventually burned itself out with no vaccines. She said the same might happen with the coronavirus, but it’s difficult to predict how the virus will mutate in the future. “You just don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said.

Tabb said society is already starting to reopen a bit. “It is already gradually happening,” he said. “It may be that we have to retreat a little bit as things heat up again. This constant assessment of risk and back and forth is going to be with us for a significant period of time. It doesn’t mean we’re all going to be locked up in our homes and never going out.”

All of the health care executives said vaccines are the best weapon people have in dealing with COVID — not in preventing them from getting the disease but from suffering serious illness or death.

“These vaccines are absolutely safe and effective,” Tabb said. “There is no other way to describe them. We know that based on the data. We know that based on the tens of millions of people that have been vaccinated with an extraordinarily low complication rate, rivaling anything that we’ve ever used before.”

Klibanski said people should get their booster shots. “There seems to be a great deal of reluctance across the country and in this state, too, on making sure people understand that vaccinations don’t last forever.,” she said. “To be actually fully immunized, at some period of time, you should have a booster.”

Rooney asked whether people will need to get a second, third, and fourth booster.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

“None of us know for sure, and I think we’re all following the science on this closely and there is no absolute answer,” Tabb said. “We don’t know the answer to the question yet, but it would not shock any of us if it turned out to be true.”

Churchwell described the situation as fluid. “I continue to say ‘stay tuned,’” he said.