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America Is Not Ready for Omicron

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 17, 2021

This piece, from Ed Yong, is not at all surprising: America Is Not Ready for Omicron.

America was not prepared for COVID-19 when it arrived. It was not prepared for last winter’s surge. It was not prepared for Delta’s arrival in the summer or its current winter assault. More than 1,000 Americans are still dying of COVID every day, and more have died this year than last. Hospitalizations are rising in 42 states. The University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, which entered the pandemic as arguably the best-prepared hospital in the country, recently went from 70 COVID patients to 110 in four days, leaving its staff “grasping for resolve,” the virologist John Lowe told me. And now comes Omicron.

Will the new and rapidly spreading variant overwhelm the U.S. health-care system? The question is moot because the system is already overwhelmed, in a way that is affecting all patients, COVID or otherwise. “The level of care that we’ve come to expect in our hospitals no longer exists,” Lowe said.

The real unknown is what an Omicron cross will do when it follows a Delta hook. Given what scientists have learned in the three weeks since Omicron’s discovery, “some of the absolute worst-case scenarios that were possible when we saw its genome are off the table, but so are some of the most hopeful scenarios,” Dylan Morris, an evolutionary biologist at UCLA, told me. In any case, America is not prepared for Omicron. The variant’s threat is far greater at the societal level than at the personal one, and policy makers have already cut themselves off from the tools needed to protect the populations they serve. Like the variants that preceded it, Omicron requires individuals to think and act for the collective good — which is to say, it poses a heightened version of the same challenge that the U.S. has failed for two straight years, in bipartisan fashion.

The main point:

Here, then, is the problem: People who are unlikely to be hospitalized by Omicron might still feel reasonably protected, but they can spread the virus to those who are more vulnerable, quickly enough to seriously batter an already collapsing health-care system that will then struggle to care for anyone — vaccinated, boosted, or otherwise. The collective threat is substantially greater than the individual one. And the U.S. is ill-poised to meet it.

Also from Yong: he recently cancelled his 40th birthday party because of Omicron and wrote about how he thought through the decision.

If someone got sick, I know others could too. A week later, many of my friends will spend Christmas with their own families. At best, a cluster of infections at the birthday party would derail those plans, creating days of anxious quarantine or isolation, and forcing the people I love to spend time away from their loved ones. At worst, people might unknowingly carry the virus to their respective families, which might include elderly, immunocompromised, unvaccinated, partially vaccinated, or otherwise vulnerable people. Being born eight days before Christmas creates almost the perfect conditions for one potential super-spreader event to set off many more.

As has been the case the entire pandemic, our political and public health systems are not equipped to collectively combat this virus, so it falls to individuals to make good choices for our communities. It’s a nearly impossible thing to ask to pandemic-weary folks to focus in again on making good personal choices and even harder to achieve if few are willing to do it, but goddammit we have to try.