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How Omicron is changing Covid risk calculations
00:59 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is the host of SiriusXM radio’s daily program “The Dean Obeidallah Show” and a columnist for The Daily Beast. Follow him @DeanObeidallah. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN. This piece has been updated to reflect the latest news.

CNN  — 

It feels like every time we think we are close to being done with Covid-19, nature ups its game with a new variant. This weekend the live part of “Saturday Night Live” was canceled due to rising Covid-19 cases, and it wasn’t alone: All future shows of the iconic “Christmas Spectacular” at New York’s Radio City Music Hall this season have been canceled, on top of postponements or cancellations of NFL, NBA, NHL and NCAA games.

Dean Obeidallah

“This Omicron variant is extraordinarily contagious. It’s as contagious as measles, and that’s about the most contagious virus that we’ve seen,” warned CNN medical analyst Jonathan Reiner on Saturday. The World Health Organization has found that Omicron cases are doubling every one-and-a-half to three days in countries with documented transmission.

This looks awful. And it may end up being the worst wave yet. Right now, we just don’t know.

But what we do know is that we’re a nation struggling with pandemic fatigue, and if we’re going to face a third year of Covid-19 we’ll need some hope to carry us through. This is why the Biden team’s consideration of an approach where we learn to live alongside the virus, as opposed to being dominated by it, is 100% correct.

Rather than lean toward new lockdowns – likely to only make our collective frustration and fatigue worse – CNN reported that Biden administration officials are exploring messaging that would shift our focus from the total number of cases, which would include those that are mild, to a focus on the serious cases. “We’re getting to the point now where … It’s not about cases. It’s about severity,” said Xavier Becerra, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, earlier this week. Becerra acknowledged that there’s still “a degree of difficulty that now comes in trying to decide what means it’s severe,” but added that he believes this shift is “where we’re heading.”

If that’s the case, Becerra and the Biden administration are on the right track, as this approach allows for nuance – and with that, we can believe, a bit of hope. As we do the work to learn about Omicron and prepare for a potential surge – including stressing the importance of vaccination – we can also acknowledge how far we’ve come in this fight.

We are not where we were a year ago, when only one million Americans were vaccinated, meaning as a nation we were overwhelmingly unprotected. Today, just over 200 million are fully vaccinated, or 61% of the total population, while nearly 73% of all Americans have received at least one shot, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There’s a push to make testing more accessible – although the lines are still long – with White House Covid-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients saying last Monday that the Biden administration’s “goal is to give free tests to everyone who wants one in the most efficient and effective way possible.” To that end, President Biden announced earlier this month that insurance companies would be required to pay for at-home Covid testing kits.

What we are seeing today is alarming – and experts are bracing for it to get worse – but it’s a tremendous drop-off from last year, when our nation averaged around 218,000 new cases on December 18, compared to an average of about 127,000 cases on the same date this year. To refine our focus to center on severe cases makes sense, as it would give us a clearer picture of where we stand in learning to combat Covid-19.

For example, look at the data coming from New York. On Saturday, the Empire State broke its daily record for most new cases since the beginning of the pandemic with 21,908 confirmed infections. But currently there are just 3,909 people hospitalized from Covid compared to a peak of 18,825 in April 2020. (The fact that New York State has one of the highest fully vaccinated rates in the country at nearly 71% has likely helped lessen the hospitalizations.)

Again, these numbers could change for the worse as time goes on. But right now, to me they tell us that the severity of cases – not solely confirmed cases – should be a key metric in deciding polices that keep us safe from Covid while also allowing us to live our lives. And co-existing with Covid will mean a more targeted, laser-focused approach.

In New York City some companies have recently announced returning to remote working during this Covid spike. It’s the right thing to do to keep people safe. But in less populated parts of the nation, that action may not be warranted. As long as a policy decision is based on science – not politics – then it’s the correct approach.

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    We are all tired of Covid. And the fatigue from Covid restrictions is palpable. That’s why on Tuesday, when President Biden delivers his national address focused on the Omicron variant, the hope is that the President doesn’t limit his discussion to vaccines and testing. Rather, Biden must also share a vision of a nuanced approach to keeping Americans safe, one that gives people encouragement that there’s a new normal ahead where we don’t simply survive Covid, but we also thrive at the same time.