“So close and yet so far” feels like the right phrase to use a year after the World Health Organization used the “P-word,” “pandemic,” to describe the coronavirus’s impact on public health, globally.

One year and over 550,000 COVID-related deaths in the U.S. later, we face a New Reality that Dr. Michael Osterholm and I are brainstorming today at the 2021 South-by-Southwest Festival.

Usually held live and very up-close-and-personally crowded in Austin, Texas, this year we are all virtual — including the film, music, and interactive festivals alike. While I regret to not be in the same room as Dr. O, who is based at CIDRAP at the University of Minnesota, I know how well this virus-expert can navigate “screens” in our COVID era; he’s a featured expert on most major cable news networks, and regularly updates his podcast, The Osterholm Update. His latest Episode #47 session looked at “Preparing for Act 3” of COVID-19.

Dr. O. discussed the status of vaccines and variants in America, easing of restrictions throughout various parts of the U.S., and CEC guidelines for fully-vaccinated health citizens.

Top-line, Dr. Osterholm called 2020 The Year of COVID….and we segued into 2021 as The Year of Vaccines.

This week, Ipsos updated their coronavirus consumer research, and I want to provide you with their latest findings as useful context for Dr. O’s and my SXSW discussion.

On our American One Year COVID anniversary, four in five Americans know someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus. More than one in three people know someone who died from COVID-19.

CDC data shows that about 10% of people in the U.S. have tested positive for the coronavirus.

On the upside, vaccination intent is on the rise around the world, including in the U.S., raising optimism among Americans who see light to the “end” of the pandemic-tunnel.

While optimism is a good thing to hold onto, Americans are getting restless, Ipsos found.

More folks are keen to get out to eat or visit friends and family in person, the second line chart illustrates. 44% of Americans visited friends or family in the first week of March, and 39% went out to eat in a restaurant.

Note that last weekend (ending 14th March), the Transportation Security Administration reported the heaviest airplane flying day in the U.S. since the start of the pandemic.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Director of the CDC, told Rachel Maddow on 8 March, “We know that after mass travel, after vaccinations, after holidays, we tend to see a surge in cases.”

It’s Spring Break time, y’all.

As Dr. Walensky noted, we have seen and learned what can happen to the COVID-19 positivity curve that we’ve tried to squash since April 2020. When people stop distancing and hang out in bars, on beaches without masks, and eat inside restaurants at fuller capacity, exposure to the coronavirus rises.

Hospitalizations can increase.

That concerns Dr. Osterholm, who believes that due to some peoples’ avoidance/rejection of public health advice and “science,” COVID-19 will be endemic — that is, part of our daily lives, well into 2022.

I won’t give away any more of the plotline of our chat so you can enjoy the journey live at 4 pm Eastern on 17th March. Or catch the SXSW replays if you can’t meet with us in real-time.

Health Populi’s Hot Points:  I leave you with a very important data point from Ipsos’s March 2021 study of U.S. consumers.

The most trusted professions in America are healthcare workers, doctors, teachers, armed forces, and scientists.

These are our essential front-line workers in the pandemic: they make our vaccines and medicines, hold our loved ones’ hands and treat them in critical care units, teach our children, protect the peace.

Let’s join together to make public health in our families, communities, in the world.

Let’s mask up, get vaccinated, allocate more resources to prevention and social care to avoid more expensive, acute medical services downstream.

As Dr. O explained in our interview, “we are dealing with the last mile and the last inch.”

That last inch is “you,” getting the vaccine into your arm to complete the high value-chain of vaccination. Onward, fellow health citizens.

I must thank Real Chemistry (formerly the W2O Group) for inviting me to participate in this interview with Dr. Osterholm. [In transparency and FYI, I sit on the company’s advisory board]. It was a real honor and thrill to engage with Dr. O in this way; he is truly one of my True North’s of epidemiology and COVID-era science-based honesty.

You can also register here for the free Real Chemistry Healthcare Media Lounge happening concurrently with SXSW on 17th and 18th March.

Even if you don’t have an SXSW paid registration, the folks at Real Chemistry want you to engage with some amazing content and conversations with leaders from across the health/care ecosystem.