Not so fast, Omicron variant says, as U.S. races for holiday normalcy
Americans’ Thanksgiving holiday traveling, socializing, and shopping resumed with vigor, near pre-pandemic norms. And yet:
- Public health, political, and financial leaders expressed increasing concern about B.1.1.529, a new variant detected in South Africa, Israel, and elsewhere. The World Health Organization dubbed this coronavirus strain Omicron, the next alphabetic-derived Greek name in the group’s list. WHO said the variant shows many mutations, especially in the spike the virus uses to invade human cells, and is of high concern — an official designation that caused worldwide markets to plunge, as well as travel bans to go up temporarily between a half dozen nations and southern Africa and Europe and the United States. Experts cautioned that further research will be needed to establish Omicron’s infectiousness, the severity of the disease it causes, and whether existing vaccines are effective and safe against it.
- A fifth likely coronavirus surge appeared to be gaining ground, with deaths declining or holding static from peaks set during a summer of sickness and fatalities, mostly in the South and Pacific Northwest. Now, cases and hospitalizations are increasing, notably in the Midwest and Northeast. Hospitals and health systems in Michigan are reporting they are getting overwhelmed with serious coronavirus cases, most of them afflicting the unvaccinated.
- Expert tallies indicated that the pandemic’s 2021 terrible toll has exceeded the nightmare estimates of the coronavirus caused deaths, infections, and hospitalizations of the year before. This data has exasperated doctors, nurses, and public health officials because ’21 was a year in which vaccines — safe and effective against the coronavirus — became widely accessible,. That meant that viral infections serious enough to require hospitalization or even death were largely avoidable. This is even more true as the time has worn on and officials have allowed children ages 5-12 and youths up to 18 to be safely vaccinated — and with few side effects.
GOP: Fight what works, then complain about poor outcomes
The national effort to combat the pandemic, especially if Omicron turns out to as fast-spreading and destructive variant as Delta has shown itself to be, will take public health and political leaders into even tougher grounds.
That’s because the least costly, safest, most direct, and effective anti-virus measures (distancing and limiting contact with others, face covering, and vaccination) have become politicized and polarizing to partisan extremes, especially with divisive and veritable disinformation campaigns a centerpiece of a major political party’s core approach.
Republicans now not only zealously battle the Biden Administration over an array of health measures targeted at quashing the pandemic, GOP partisans then fault the president and Democrats for “failing” to get the coronavirus under control. (Is this the tragic version of the Borscht belt jest defining chutzpah as the twisted kid who kills his parents then insists on legal mercy because he is an orphan?)
Even as overpowering data and research shows that vaccines are safe and effective, the political hostility keeps overwhelming and pounding hospitals and health systems from one region of the country to the next with unvaccinated coronavirus patients.
From the White House down, reasoned voices persist in urging the public to get vaccinated, and with vaccines showing waning protection over time, to get boosters that now are approved for use in all adults 18 and older, six months after receiving the Pfizer or Moderna shots, or two months after getting one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Schools, colleges and universities, businesses, health care organizations, and governments have pushed their people to get vaccinated, with many seeking to safeguard them with vaccine requirements.
The GOP, too often joining with extreme and conspiracy-theorist opponents of vaccinations, has zealously opposed vaccine requirements, with attorneys generals in multiple states challenging federal requirements for businesses and health workers in cases that have been consolidated in one appellate court.
Opponents argue with counterfactual abandon about individual rights and the “new” invasiveness of vaccine requirements, ignoring that they have existed since the Republic’s founding and mandates for a score of shots against infectious diseases have been commonplace for travel, education, employment, and more for decades.
The caterwauling against the coronavirus shots and requirements for them and other health measures is even more confounding to common sense because they work. Research says that unvaccinated patients have 11 times the risk of dying from Covid-19 if infected than the vaccinated have. The federal government has joined a long list of employers and enterprises in seeing 92% of its workforce comply with orders to get their shots.
Hard data should not be so easy to ignore
The data tell a disconcerting story about the worst public health nightmare in a century. The coronavirus has killed almost 780,000 Americans and infected more than 48 million of us — figures that likely are undercounted. As the New York Times reported:
“Ahead of Thanksgiving, the country was averaging about 95,000 new cases a day, an increase of about 25% over two weeks. That uptick has been fueled largely by worsening conditions in the Upper Midwest and Northeast …Michigan leads the country in recent cases per capita. The state is averaging more than 8,000 new cases a day. Reports of new cases are up more than 80% over the last two weeks in Massachusetts and up more than 70% in Illinois.”
Federal officials reported that as of Nov. 27, 196 million-plus people in this country were vaccinated, just a bit more than 59% of the nation’s population, with 37.5 million Americans having gotten boosters, too. The numbers of people getting added protection and boosters is lagging, notably among vulnerable older Americans and those in nursing homes and long-term care facilities.
We are not done with the coronavirus and the huge trauma it has inflicted on us all. Please get tested, if appropriate, get vaccinated, and get those booster shots. 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, pronto. 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 can quell the coronavirus and we must do so before it mutates again in ways that can be even more disastrous.