Americans are done with COVID-19, but Omicron is just getting started with them

WASHINGTON – Over the past week, Omicron sent Canada on what feels like the 19th COVID nervous breakdown, sounding the alarm that it’s time to re-close the hatches and prepare for impending disaster. At least that’s what I can glean from following news reports, social media, and family conversations at home: tighter border restrictions, public service home work orders, schools preparing to return to being virtual, prohibitions contemplated for spectators in sports. events. Ontario announced a “wartime base” for the mobilization of booster vaccines.

“This is the scariest thing since this pandemic started,” Dr. Beate Sander, chair of the Ontario Independent Volunteer Scientific Board modeling group, told my colleague Bruce Arthur ahead of the weekend, summing up the feeling that radiates to southern Canada.

Down here in the United States? Well, there is no balance in wartime. The media is covering Omicron’s emerging (terrifying) science, but the hatches remain largely uncapped.

At a White House COVID response team briefing on Wednesday, familiar faces (Rochelle Walensky of the Centers for Disease Control, Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health) spoke about the emergence of the coronavirus strain that, they said it has a doubling time of two days and accounts for 13 percent of cases in New York and New Jersey. The take-away message from officials was the same as it has been for a long time: get vaccinated and then get a booster. And consider wearing a mask indoors.

During the daily press conference on Air Force One on Wednesday, Omicron barely came up among questions about the natural disaster in Kentucky, the budget dispute on Capitol Hill, the commission on January 6. When raised briefly, it was so that the spokesperson conducting the briefing could essentially say that no new restrictive closures or travel measures are imminent.

When asked directly how concerned Americans should be, Dr. Fauci said: “If you are not vaccinated, you are very vulnerable not only to the surge in existing Delta that we are experiencing, but also to Omicron.” Those who are not vaccinated should receive a vaccine, he said. Those who are vaccinated should receive a booster, he said. Wear a mask in crowded confined spaces, he said. “If you can’t read the tea leaves accurately, do what we’ve recommended.”

But look, he and his colleagues have been recommending doing the same things, the same things, for quite some time. And people have not been doing things. Some of the things, they have been doing less and less.

Much of the country, for example, is on the verge of ending masks. In the Washington, DC area, as in many large cities, people almost always wear masks in stores, on public transportation, and in official buildings. But I traveled with my family to rural Maryland for the weekend, and I can report that the scenes were what you would expect if the pandemic never started: in shops, bars and restaurants, indoor pools, markets and hotel lobbies, people they were often crowded together and very few people wore (or even visibly wore) a mask. I saw the same thing happening through various towns in rural Pennsylvania late last month.

The same is reported outside of major US cities: “Nobody cares” COVID, Matthew Walther wrote in the Atlantic on Monday. “Outside of the world inhabited by the professional and managerial classes in a handful of major metropolitan areas, many, if not most, Americans are living their lives as if COVID is over, and have been for a long time.”

A large number of those people are not vaccinated. Vaccines are freely available here, at no cost, and often without an appointment, and have been for a long time. Booster shots for pretty much all adults have been available for weeks (I got my booster in early November). But a year, almost to the day, after the first vaccine was administered in the U.S., according to the numbers Dr. Walensky shared during Wednesday’s briefing, only about 60 percent of Americans consider themselves fully vaccinated, and only about 16.6 percent have received a booster shot.

Some Americans were never big on COVID precautions. But it seems like a lot of other people have recently decided, after all this time, that they are done with them too. They are done with masquerading and staying away from the family and staying home for dinner. That they are willing to move on with their lives, for better or for worse.

And it may well be for the worse. Much worse. Even before Omicron, Delta was driving the COVID toll – this week alone, the US reached the staggering 800,000 death milestone, and Delta’s cases and hospitalizations have been on the rise. The daily average of new cases in the US for the seven days leading up to Wednesday was more than 121,000, according to the New York Times (a 46 percent increase in two weeks). More than 67,000 people were hospitalized each day on average and more than 1,200 died each day.

And that’s before the more contagious Omicron really takes hold, which it could do in a month or so, if not sooner.

President Joe Biden said when he announced his Omicron plan that it would not involve “shutdowns or shutdowns.” He said, “if people are vaccinated and wear their mask, there is no need for lockdowns.” Many Americans are not vaccinated, of course, and many more are no longer wearing masks. But the promise not to take drastic action remains the White House line, even as the situation itself appears to be getting more drastic.

That approach seems to be in line with the attitude of much of the American public: The Omicron news is surely alarming, but they are too tired of being alarmed to be nervous.

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