Every American is being drawn into a reckoning over how much risk is acceptable to get the nation back on its feet as the new Omicron variant of Covid-19 rages out of control.
The country is being buried under an avalanche of new infections, but after two exhausting, demoralizing years, the impetus among millions of people to try to find a way to live more normally alongside the disease has never been stronger. Striking the right balance is complicated since the pandemic has reached its most paradoxical phase yet.
Signs of a worsening winter crisis are cropping up everywhere even as new hope stirs that a virus that wrecked the last two years is not, perhaps, as frightening in its latest guise. It’s also jarring that infection curves are shooting straight up in vertical lines as hospitals overflow but many Americans who get Covid-19 for the first time shrug it off like it’s a mild cold.
The situation has led to debate in Washington, DC – where President Joe Biden is set to address the rapid spread of Omicron on Tuesday – to governors’ mansions, corporate boardrooms, schools and living rooms from coast to coast.
There’s particular confusion in education, which is driving parents to distraction for the umpteenth time in the pandemic and is again threatening to cause major economic consequences if key workers cannot get child care. Schools in Detroit, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Cleveland and Washington are swamped by the virus and are returning to virtual learning or delaying class at least for a few days after the holiday break. And Dr. James Versalovic, chief pathologist at Texas Children’s Hospital, warned Monday of “staggering” numbers of kids in his wards battling Omicron.
But on the same day, newly sworn-in New York City Mayor Eric Adams boasted of his “swagger” and told the Big Apple – where infections are soaring – not to “wallow in Covid” as he dissed teachers asking for similar treatment as colleagues in other places who are going virtual. Deepening the contradictions, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a fellow Democrat, warned that “we are not in a good place” as the winter surge bites. It’s also puzzling how NFL stadiums are jammed as playoffs loom in a sign of normality but thousands of airline flights are being canceled as flight crews call out sick.
A dastardly combination
While the signals seem conflicting, they can be rationalized, though meshing them into a coherent national response to a pandemic that has incessantly outraced political leaders and deepened national divides is another thing.
The most important key to understanding parallel Covid realities is that the Omicron variant is vastly more infectious than the Delta version that it is overtaking but is, according to growing evidence, generally causing less serious disease.
This dastardly combination of increased transmissibility but apparently more moderate sickness is challenging the tenuous balance between mitigation and the preservation of a semblance of normal life forged in previous waves of infection. It also means that political and corporate leaders wrestle with the question of whether a virus that manifests in mild illness and even no symptoms for many people should continue to threaten critical infrastructure and basic services that underpin American life.
Some elected officials are erring on the side of caution – including those who are closing schools, at least for a while. It makes sense, because it’s hard to fathom how to keep in-person learning up and running if teachers test positive and have to enter isolation. But other leaders, like Adams, give the impression the country is fighting the last war against the pathogen when a new one has just kicked off. His bullishness is the luxury of a mayor with a new mandate.
But it may put him at risk of falling into the trap of many leaders before him – underestimating Covid-19. Three days into his term, Adams appeared implicitly to be conceding that some Republicans who have long argued that epidemiological mitigation has gone too far may have been right. Remarkably, he was on the same page Monday as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican opponent of mask mandates who vowed Omicron would not shutter schools in the Sunshine State, with his habitual flair for a political headline.
But the notion that Omicron is a tame foe shifts the risk equation too far toward underestimating the virus and could lead to dangerous shortcuts.
“This narrative that it’s just a mild virus is not accurate,” Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine and professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine, told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Monday.
“We’ve just done a terrible job vaccinating our kids across the country. … So even though there’s a lot of happy talk about the Omicron variant, less severe disease, when you add up all the factors … we’ve got a very serious situation facing us in this country, especially for the kids.” Taking aim at that crisis, the US Food and Drug Administration announced Monday an emergency use authorization for Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine boosters for adolescents ages 12 to 15. For everyone else already eligible, it reduced the time between completing an initial series of shots and a recommended booster from six months to five months, and it permitted a third dose of the primary series for some immunocompromised children ages 5 to 11.
As more Americans tire of the fight, conservative critics of public health officials might want to avoid the temptation to gloat. Even now, most Americans hospitalized and dying in the Omicron surge (and the still raging Delta wave in some districts) are those who declined free, effective vaccines, amid a torrent of misinformation about the inoculations fed by many GOP politicians and conservative media hosts.
The best way to stay protected against serious illness, hospitalization or death is to get vaccinated and boosted whether the Omicron variant is less potent or not. Many of the 820,000 American dead from the disease might be alive had some Republicans, including ex-President Donald Trump, not made public health a casualty of their political ambitions and ignored science and pushed for premature economic openings in 2020.
Hospitals hammered again
And living with the virus is easier said than done.
One of the cruelest quirks of Omicron is that while it seems easier for most people to shake off, its increased transmissibility means that even a smaller percentage of patients who get seriously ill in this wave than in others could buckle health care systems and further stretch hero doctors and nurses who have been wrung out by the pandemic. As an example, national hospitalizations hit 100,000 on Monday for the first time in four months and most experts expect them to go higher. Overloading the system could also severely diminish the quality of care for people with other ailments, especially chronic conditions like heart attacks or strokes.
But the nature of this pandemic is that it poses questions that are mostly impossible to answer satisfactorily – especially those that cross into the fractured political realm. Sen. Marco Rubio, for instance, welcomed the sight of full football stadiums over the weekend and warned in a tweet against “irrational hysteria” stirred by Omicron. But the Florida Republican earned a rebuke from the President’s chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who noted on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that 1,200 daily deaths on average from Covid-19 was “not a trivial situation.”
But even Fauci has argued in recent days that the country is in the process of recalibrating its risk tolerance and said last week that no activity in a pandemic was totally safe.
Public health authorities have, for instance, started to adapt their approach, given that Omicron’s infectious properties threaten to swiftly drain the work force and threaten the capacity of hospitals, the police and emergency services. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week halved the recommended isolation period for those who test positive and who are asymptomatic or whose symptoms are receding to five days, as long as they wear a mask for another five days. Yet there’s confusion here as well, and Fauci told CNN on Sunday that clearer guidance, perhaps involving a testing component, is coming. But even if fresh CDC guidelines clear the issue up, many Americans are finding it impossible to get tests amid a nationwide shortage so may be unable to comply.
That’s just another reason for the nagging sense in the country that everyone is groping not just for the exit from the pandemic and its deprivations – which seems unrealistic – but a modified way of life that is sustainable. But despite hopes of a swift peaking of Omicron, no one can say for sure how long it will rule, or whether it will be followed by another nettlesome and chaos-stirring variant.