The lethal toll of the latest Omicron surge in the coronavirus pandemic lags no more.
But even as overwhelmed doctors, nurses, hospitals, and clinics record new highs in disease deaths (see chart, courtesy the New York Times), exceeding some of the worst daily fatality numbers in what has become the planet’s worst public health crisis in a century, destructive coronavirus disinformation is mutating too.
Hard data show that the Omicron firestorm appears to be subsiding, at least as reported infections decline sharply in many areas.
Hospitals, though, continue to be jammed with seriously ill, mostly unvaccinated coronavirus patients. They have overwhelmed the U.S. health system, even as experts say that Omicron hospitalizations are shorter and largely less severe than those caused by the Delta variant.
What the numbers say
The staggering number of Omicron infections — down to less than 600,000 daily and off from highs of 1 million a day — has meant, still, that huge numbers of patients, especially the unvaccinated, would get gravely ill, be hospitalized, and die.
Deaths have trailed cases and hospitalizations throughout the pandemic, and the challenging characterization of Omicron as a “milder” variant will be balanced by its now spiking fatalities, averaging 2,500 daily (a 34% increase over the last 14 days) and hitting 3,000 or 4,000 deaths or more on average daily on some days.
This, in turn, rapidly is boosting the pandemic death toll toward 880,000, a number that likely both represents an undercount and will keep climbing. The fatalities are roughly equivalent to or exceeding the population of places like San Francisco, Seattle, and Denver.
The toll is ghastly and unacceptable because the country, for a year now, has possessed the remarkable, safe, and effective protection against the coronavirus — at least two and even three powerful vaccines.
But public sentiment, opinion surveys show, is showing great frustration, anxiety, exhaustion, and loss of hope with experts’ efforts to quell the virus, notably with vaccines but also steps like face covering, improved ventilation, distancing, and avoidance of closed, crowded indoor spaces. The chattering classes increasingly are talking about the need for the weary public to “just learn to live with” the coronavirus and its devastation. The rhetorical turn begs, perhaps, for a reprise of a legendary rebuttal (click here to listen to a legendary Winston Churchill wartime address, appropriate for these times).
Counterfactual, illogical, and inconsistent
Resistance to pandemic-quelling measures — particularly by conservative Republicans — has not only intensified but even turned to angry, aggressive, excessive defiance. It also has spread to other counterfactual extremes.
Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, has, for example, vilified regulators for halting federal distribution of two novel, costly, and complex drugs that he as a lawyer and politician has somehow decided should be used to treat the overpowering surge of patients hospitalized with Omicron infections.
Infectious disease experts — doctors and medical scientists — say this is a misuse of specific types of monoclonal antibody drugs for powerful reasons: They are costly, challenging to make, in extremely short supply, and they do not work against this variant, though they have been effective against the predecessor Delta strain.
DeSantis and other politicians have riled their partisan base earlier by hyping other drugs, including hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, for coronavirus care — though rigorous clinical trials have disproven the usefulness in coronavirus treatment of these and other medications promoted by conservatives with little or no evidence.
The anti-science argument for ineffective or debunked drug treatments for the coronavirus becomes unfathomable when stacked against the vehement GOP opposition to vaccines and their required use. Opponents argue that the vaccines appeared too suddenly to be trusted. They say the shots rely on a new technology that they find complex and, for inexplicable reason, frightening and not worthy of trust, even as billions of doses have been administered with negligible numbers of bad side effects.
But wait, please: How much do extremists know about monoclonal antibodies, their development, or manufacture in labs? Could any of the outspoken provide a clear discussion describing, much less distinguishing therapies such as bamlanivimab, etesevimab, casirivimab and imdevimab, much less Paxlovid, sotrovimab, Veklury, and molnupiravir? As an article posted on Stat, a science and medical news site, reported:
“[W]hile largely baseless vaccine hesitancy has hindered the U.S. pandemic response, [some] Americans are tripping over themselves to take therapeutics that are experimental, expensive, and ineffective — precisely the characteristics that anti-vaccine advocates falsely ascribe to Covid immunizations, which are proven, free, and effective. ‘It is confusing that people are willing to take what is really an experimental monoclonal antibody, but they aren’t willing to take a vaccine that millions of people have gotten, and has been shown to be safe and effective,’ said Sonja Rasmussen, a physician, former CDC official, and professor of pediatrics and epidemiology at the University of Florida.”
Foes of all vaccines see a moment
In Georgia, a conservative GOP lawmaker has confirmed public health advocates worst fears about the unfounded fury surrounding the coronavirus shots — that it is part of the larger, evidence-free, and risky campaign to undo a century or more of medical progress by banning vaccines altogether for kids.
The anti-vax movement showed itself in full feather in a recent protest in Washington, D.C., where Robert F. Kennedy Jr., one of its leaders and a scion of a legendary political family, prompted some deserved ignominy for himself by “invoking Anne Frank to imply Jews had more freedoms during the Holocaust than unvaccinated Americans do today,” the Washington Post reported. He later apologized for the remarks, assailed by his own family members.
With the pandemic raging still, is this really the direction a weary nation wants to head — discarding the array of shots that keep youngsters and all the rest safer from an array of once debilitating and deadly infectious diseases? Or are California lawmakers headed on a more correct track, arguing that the coronavirus vaccine soon should be required and normalized for school-aged kids making the inoculation just as routine as 17 or 18 other shots children must receive?
We are not done with the coronavirus and the huge trauma it has inflicted on us all.
Please get tested, if appropriate, AND get vaccinated, AND get those booster shots AND wear those quality masks indoors. Officials are trying to make it as easy and convenient, as possible — and it’s free. If you’re uncertain about getting a booster or optimizing your mixing and matching of coronavirus shots, talk to your doctor. And, while you’re at it, ask about and get your annual flu shot.
We cannot ignore disease and death and embrace nihilism and fatalism. We cannot allow anti-science fanatics to destroy centuries of progress with the viral spread of ever-wilder fantasies and conspiracies. Our health system, the envy of the world, cannot be a toy that will be smashed and ruined by selfish belligerence.