WASHINGTON—Over the past week, Omicron has sent Canada into what feels like COVID’s 19th nervous breakdown, sounding the alarm that it’s time again to batten down the hatches and prepare for looming disaster. at the minimum, that’s what I can gather from following news reports, social media, and conversations with family back home: tighter border restrictions, public-service work-from-home orders, schools preparing to go virtual again, contemplated bans on spectators at sporting events. Ontario announced a “wartime footing” for booster shot mobilization.
“This is the scariest it has been since this pandemic started,” Dr. Beate Sander, the head of Ontario’s independent volunteer science table’s modelling group, told my colleague Bruce Arthur before the weekend, summing up the feeling radiating south from Canada.
Down here in the U.S.? Well, there’s no wartime footing. Media outlets are covering the emerging (scary) science of Omicron, but the hatches largely keep unbattened.
At a briefing by the White House COVID response team Wednesday, familiar faces (the Centers for Disease Control’s Rochelle Walensky, the National Institutes of Health’s Anthony Fauci) spoke of the emergence of the coronavirus strain that they said has a doubling time of two days and accounts for 13 per cent of situations in New York and New Jersey. The takeaway message from the officials was the same as it’s long been: get vaccinated, then get boosted. And please consider wearing a disguise indoors.
During the daily press briefing on Air Force One Wednesday, Omicron barely came up among the questions about the natural disaster in Kentucky, the budget wrangling on Capitol Hill, the Jan. 6 commission. When it was raised briefly, it was so the spokesperson conducting the briefing could essentially say no new restrictive shutdown or travel measures are imminent.
Asked directly how worried Americans should be, Dr. Fauci said, “If you are unvaccinated, you are very unprotected not only to the existing Delta surge that we are experiencing, but also to Omicron.” Those who are unvaccinated should get a shot, he said. Those who are vaccinated should get a booster, he said. use a disguise in crowded indoor places, he said. “If you can’t read the tea leaves precisely, then do the things that we’ve been recommending.”
But see, he and his colleagues have recommended doing the things — the same things — for quite a while. And people have not been doing the things. Some of the things, they’ve been doing less and less.
Much of the country, for example, is just about finished with masks. In the Washington, D.C. area, like in many big cities, people pretty much always nevertheless use masks in stores, on public transit, and in official buildings. But I travelled with my family to rural Maryland over the weekend, and I can report that the scenes there were what you’d expect if the pandemic never began: in stores, bars, and restaurants, indoor pools, markets and hotel lobbies, people were often crowded in and very few people were wearing (or already visibly carrying) a disguise. I saw the same thing passing by various towns in rural Pennsylvania late last month.
Reports are that the same is true outside of major cities across the U.S.: “No one cares” about COVID, Matthew Walther wrote in the Atlantic on Monday. “Outside the world inhabited by the specialized and managerial classes in a handful of major metropolitan areas, many, if not most, Americans are leading their lives as if COVID is over, and they have been for a long while.”
A large number of those people are not vaccinated. Vaccines are freely obtainable here, at no cost and often with no appointment necessary, and have been for a long time. Booster shots for virtually every adult have been obtainable for the asking for weeks (I got my booster in early November). But one year, almost to the day, after the first vaccine shot was administered in the U.S., according to the numbers Dr. Walensky shared during Wednesday’s briefing, only about 60 per cent of Americans are considered fully vaccinated, and only about 16.6 per cent have gotten a booster shot.
Some Americans were never big on COVID precautions. But it seems a lot of other people have recently decided, after all this time, that they too are done with them. That they’re by with masking up and staying away from family and staying home for dinner. That they are ready to get on with their lives, for better or for worse.
And it may well be for worse. Much worse. already before Omicron, the COVID toll was being pushed by Delta: just this week, the U.S. reached the staggering meaningful development of 800,000 deaths, and situations and hospitalizations from Delta have been climbing. The daily average of new situations in the U.S. for the seven days leading up to Wednesday was more than 121,000, according to the New York Times (up 46 per cent in two weeks). Over 67,000 people were hospitalized each day on average, and every day more than 1,200 died.
And that is before the more contagious Omicron really takes keep up, which it could do within a month or so, if not sooner.
President Joe Biden said when he announced his Omicron plan that it would include “no lockdowns or shutdowns.” He said, “if people are vaccinated and use their disguise, there is no need for lockdowns.” Plenty of Americans are not vaccinated, of course, and many more are no longer wearing masks. But the no-drastic-measures-potential remains the White House line, already as the situation itself seems to get more drastic.
That approach seems in line with the attitude of much of the American public: the Omicron news is surely upsetting, but they are too tired of being alarmed to get worked up.
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