The steady, global spread of the Omicron variant and the huge uncertainty about what menace it may pose also may provide a powerful prod for anyone still fence-sitting to finally get those coronavirus vaccinations, including booster shots.
Experts are furiously researching and may not know for weeks or longer whether Omicron will be worse than the Delta variant, which rages still in parts of the country, overwhelming health systems in the cooling North, notably in New Hampshire, Michigan and Minnesota.
But the Biden Administration and governments around the world are racing to get ahead of vigorous responses to Omicron.
What works against Delta will battle Omicron
President Biden has told the country that he does not foresee for now new pandemic lockdowns. He said the federal government will try to protect the public from the new variant with familiar steps: Even greater emphasis on vaccinations for everyone older than 5 and boosters for all older than 18 (six months after finishing the Moderna or Pfizer regimen or two months after getting a dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine).
Medical scientists are seeking to determine whether Omicron, as appears now, is more contagious than Delta and whether the newer variant causes more severe cases. It also is unknown whether existing medications and vaccinations that have proved safe and effective against the Delta variant will have the same usefulness against Omicron.
But experts say that existing vaccines and boosters will be highly helpful in battling both variants and keeping patients safe and well. At least one study from South Africa suggests that Omicron has a higher reinfection rate than Delta does, further undercutting arguments by some that those who have had a coronavirus infection — with many of the cases mild — should be considered as immune as those who have gotten vaccination.
The administration has toughened vaccination and testing requirements for international travelers entering this country, including Americans.
Biden said his administration will push with providers and insurers to boost yet more the availability of accurate, affordable, at-home coronavirus testing kits. This could be a key way to track coronavirus cases and help patients, including by potentially detecting cases early enough so they could be prescribed new antiviral medications.
Federal officials have given emergency approval to at least one such drug, which has shown lesser effectiveness than originally thought but still adds another treatment option for a disease that has lacked such alternatives.
Ferocious and fact-light resistance
But even as leaders around the globe gird their people for Omicron’s threat, the evidence-light opponents of vaccines, vaccinations, and requirements for shots are pitching ferocious legal, political, and public opinion resistance.
In the United States, the Republican Party has become a core constituency opposing vaccinations — a proven safe and effective way to quell the pandemic — as well as a virulent source of misinformation or disinformation about health protections like face covering, distancing, and limiting exposure to large groups. Republicans in Congress frustrated even their own leaders by attempting — thankfully without success — to allow the government to shut down for lack of funding unless the Biden Administration reversed its vaccination requirements for federal workers and large employers.
A federal judge has blocked the administration from requiring health workers to get vaccinated or see their employers lose important U.S. financing through programs like Medicare and Medicaid. A federal appellate court is considering consolidated complaints from multiple attorneys generals in conservative states that the administration cannot require large employers to have their employees get vaccinated.
Federal officials say that as of Dec. 3, ~198 million Americans, or 60% of those eligible, were fully vaccinated, with 43 million of those 18 and older having gotten booster shots, now recommended for all. The White House has said the effort to vaccinate kids aged 5 to 12 has gotten off to a strong start with 10% of youngsters in the age group receiving a first dose in the two weeks after regulators gave the vaccine emergency approval. The administration has reported since that “hundreds of thousands” of kids are getting vaccinated daily.
Still, the pandemic has killed an estimated 784,000 Americans and infected 49 million. Those figures are likely undercounted. As the New York Times reported:
“Health departments are identifying about 86,000 cases a day, down from about 95,000 before Thanksgiving … More than 55,000 coronavirus patients are hospitalized nationwide, far fewer than in September but an increase of 15% over the last two weeks. The current outbreak continues to be driven by the highly transmissible Delta variant.”
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.