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The next new normal: What health measures are here to stay, and what will end with the pandemic

"We may never be exactly out of 'pandemic normal', but I think it will be a lot better."

ST. LOUIS — From wiping down groceries to saying hello with an elbow bump, we've embraced a lot of changes in the past year in an effort to stay healthy — some were short-lived, others might be here to stay.

“Nobody wants to stay in a locked-down phase forever and no one's suggesting that," said Dr. Hilary Babcock, Washington University infectious disease specialist at BJC HealthCare.

Instead, she and other health care professionals suggest adopting other forever changes, like more frequent hand and surface sanitizing, more flexibility with sick time off work, even considering masking against other viruses.

“We might be able to have less severe flu seasons more often, and that would be a big benefit as well,” said Dr. Babcock.

Looking back on changing guidance on issues such as mask-wearing — when experts initially advised against wearing them in an effort to preserve supplies for healthcare workers, then pivoted to advocating for their widespread use — Dr. Babcock said doctors and public health experts have learned to be more straightforward in order to maintain public trust.

“We all have to be transparent and we have to be humble and we have to be honest about what we think versus what we know,” she said.

She hopes the community has seen the importance of a strong public health infrastructure to tackle some of the biggest challenges associated with a crisis like COVID-19.

“As a nation, we have chronically underfunded our public health programs and our public health infrastructure for honestly decades. And we have seen what that means as we try to respond, try to do contact tracing, try to roll out a vaccine,” she said. “The capacity just not there. I hope that we have learned that we need to fund that better and to build that capacity so that we are better prepared. There will be another pandemic. There will be more challenges. That's just the way of the world. So we need to be better prepared the next time.

At an individual level, she also said she's also seen how capable we are of accepting changes. 

“The majority of people did do their part,” she said, “and the impact of that has really been seen.”

By March of 2022, Dr. Babcock said she’s imagining we will be looking back on a year of more widespread vaccine distribution and acceptance.

“I am hopeful that in the fall things will look more normal, that schools will be able to be operating more normally, that businesses will be able to operate more normally.”

She said getting a regular COVID-19 booster shot may also be part of "new healthcare normal," but continued study will be required to find out if and when that’s necessary.

"I don't think it will be totally back to our pre-pandemic normal. We may never be exactly out of pandemic normal, but I think it will be a lot better," she said.