No. 26 ~ Somerville ~ February 27, 2021

Have cabin fever. Will travel?

Here in eastern Massachusetts, snow fell for 36 hours from the 18th to the 19th. It fell with great care, the puffy flakes socially distanced, accumulation amounting to only a few inches. I used my long-handled snow shovel like a broom, sweeping the weightless snow aside, another nor’easter out of the way, another storm closer to spring. 

As cabin fever builds up behind our doubled-up masks, some of us are wondering when and if we might be able to travel to France this year. 

Of course France is now closed to those outside the European Union. This travel restriction goes back almost a year, but on January 31 the rules became stricter. The list of exemptions is short and limited, and does not even allow for Americans who have second homes in France to travel there at this time. When France does open to Americans, it will most likely act in conjunction with EU actions, rather than unilaterally.

So the question is, “When will the travel restrictions be lifted?” 

If we want to use the phrase, “cautiously optimistic,” caution quickly becomes the operative word. Writing about what may be possible this summer, Joe Pinsker in The Atlantic this week admitted that “experts I spoke with didn’t foresee the return of . . . high levels of international travel.”

And in an article about travel on Tuesday, The Local invoked that dreaded phrase, jusqu’a nouvel ordre (“until further notice”), that we saw as a footnote to so many announcements when we were in Paris during the spring lockdown. That is, as things stand right now, as far as the French are concerned, nobody knows when travel restrictions may be lifted. 

What we do know is that we all are in a race between the variants and the vaccines. How the race plays out may very well determine when France opens up, and the race is not playing out the same way in France as it is here in the U.S.

Even though France has exceeded its goal to vaccinate 2.4 million with one dose by the end of February, they still trail behind the U.S. in vaccine administration. The U.S has vaccinated 14% of its population. At 4%, France is far behind, though still on a par with other EU countries. It’s possible the French could turn this discrepancy around. They have set up over 700 vaccination centers, but just as in the U.S., eligible people have been frustrated by a lack of vaccinations. The French also created a roadblock for the 65–74 age group when they decided to approve the AstraZeneca vaccine, but not for this group. It was just announced this week that vaccines will be available for those 65 to 74 years old sometime before April.

In the meantime, France is offering up an object lesson in how variants could spoil the reprieve from infections we’re having in the U.S. 

French Prime Minister Jean Castex announced Thursday that 20 departments, including Paris and its surrounding region of Ile-de-France, are being put on what authorities call “heightened surveillance,” due to recent day-to-day increases in new cases. He said the increase in infections is most easily explained by the prevalence of new variants. The extra-strict weekend curfew the southern city of Nice is already trying out could be expanded into these newly threatened areas. 

In the north, the city of Dunkirk is experiencing new cases at the rate of 900 per 100,000 inhabitants. As a frame of reference, the national average has been hovering around 190. Reinforcing Castex’s conclusion, had a straightforward explanation for the spike in Dunkirk’s infections: “This is due to the U.K. variant [B.1.1.7], responsible for eight cases in ten.”

To understand the importance of vaccinating as quickly as possible is to understand what a more contagious variant does to the “R” number. “R” represents the average number of people infected by someone who is contagious. 

The “R” in France has been below 1, at 0.8. If, however, we assume a variant like B.1.1.7 is 50% more contagious (estimates range from 35 to 70%), as the variant becomes dominant, the “R” jumps to 1.2, an indicator for exponential growth. A Nature article from last July cautions about too much emphasis on relying on the “R” number to manage the pandemic, but we still get the picture. Wielding syringes and masks, we’re playing whack-a-mole with the variants. They can quickly take a population where infections are cooling off and turn it into a hotspot. 

On the bright side, we can still count three months before summer. A lot has to happen before then, but maybe it will. Vaccine manufacturing is ramping up and new vaccines, like the one developed by Johnson & Johnson, are coming online.

If travel does become possible, it looks like even fully vaccinated Americans will still need a negative PCR test to accompany their passport. And as far as vaccine passports go, the French are of two minds. A recent poll for Le Parisien showed that 60% of the French are in favor of vaccine passports for international travel, but government officials, not so much. There is concern in high places that a vaccine passport could become a kind of class privilege, and infringement on the first two tenets of the country’s motto, Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. The two minds may become one, once the general population is vaccinated. 

Finally, it’s impossible to close without mention of the past week’s milestone: 500,000 Americans taken from us by Covid-19. That means millions more are facing, in the days and months and years ahead, an emptiness that can never be filled, and sadness that cannot be swept aside. Our hearts go out to them, and we hope that, as the French say, they will be bien entourés, surrounded by the loving support of family and friends.
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[Photos by JK unless otherwise noted.]