Early-morning fog and clouds were thick on the Maine coast as we left the parking lot and stepped into a forest of spruce. The trail wound its way upward to a modest peak called Gorham Mountain in Acadia National Park.
We were looking forward to reaching the top. A classic granite summit, it promised a spectacular vista. Sand Beach, Thunder Hole, pounding waves, rocky outcroppings, soaring birds, the endless dance between ocean and sky.
But when we got there, the fog and clouds were a blanket. The only reason we knew we were at the summit was the sign that marked the spot. The vista we anticipated extended no farther than the next bend in the trail. And once again, we were reminded that sometimes the view at the end of the journey is no clearer than it was at the start.
That hike comes to mind as our nation begins to reopen from its coronavirus shackles. Amid a flurry of mixed signals, mixed messages and mixed data, everyone wonders:
How does this ordeal end?
But that might be the wrong question. Because it presupposes that there is an end. And it is not at all clear that this will end, or that we’ll know when it does.
The White House held a triumphal news conference Friday to announce that a vaccine might be available by the end of the year. That would truly be wonderful. An effective vaccine, after all, would be something of a game-changer, a way to move to an end. The promise of one is a terrific peg on which to hang one’s hopes.
But let’s temper that with reality. There has never been a vaccine timeline remotely that fast, even given that researchers might have had a head start because of work done previously on vaccines against other viruses. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done that quickly, only that it hasn’t been up to now. And don’t forget the safety protocols that are supposed to be observed each step of the way.
There’s one other inconvenient historical nugget. No vaccine has ever been approved for public use against any other coronavirus. That’s not for lack of trying. It’s just been difficult.
And the record on vaccines against viruses in general is spotty. HIV, which causes AIDS, is a virus. Nearly 40 years after its deadly appearance, there still is no vaccine. The flu is a virus, but its vaccine is only 40% to 60% effective and that’s if it’s well-matched to that year’s flu strains, and it must be given every year.
In the meantime, we’re not investing in the kind of national test, trace and isolate program that could bring COVID-19 to heel. The tests, even the ones used by the White House, have accuracy issues. Recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on how best to reopen were initially suppressed, then watered down before they were released last week. Many state decisions to reopen seem based more on demands that we have to reopen than on science that says it’s the right time to do so.
And new research shows the virus can linger in the air for more than 12 minutes in interior spaces with mediocre circulation, like the restaurants we’re rushing to unfetter.
I hope there’s an end, with a bright and beautiful view for everyone. But I’m preparing for fog.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.