In the early days of the pandemic, one of the scariest and most surprising features of SARS-CoV-2 was its stealth. Initially assumed to transmit only from people who were actively sick—as its predecessor SARS-CoV did—the new coronavirus turned out to be a silent spreader, also spewing from the airways of people who were feeling just fine. After months of insisting that only the symptomatic had to mask, test, and isolate, officials scrambled to retool their guidance; singing, talking, laughing, even breathing in tight quarters were abruptly categorized as threats.
Three years later, the coronavirus is still silently spreading—but the fear of its covertness again seems gone. Enthusiasm for masking and testing has plummeted; isolation recommendations have been pared down, and may soon entirely disappear. “We’re just not communicating about asymptomatic transmission anymore,” says Saskia Popescu, an infectious-disease epidemiologist and infection-prevention expert at George Mason University. “People think, What’s the point? I feel fine.”