COVID has always divided Americans. The Omicron wave is even dividing the vaccinated.
About the author: Derek Thompson is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of the Work in Progress newsletter. He is also the author of Hit Makers and the host of the podcast Plain English.
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To understand how ideologically scrambling the Omicron wave has been, consider this: Some 2022 Democrats are sounding like 2020 Republicans. In spring 2020, many Republicans, including President Donald Trump, insisted that COVID was hardly worse than the flu; that its fatality risk was comparable to an everyday activity, like driving in a car; and that an obsessive focus on cases wouldn’t give an accurate picture of what was going on in the pandemic.
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In the current Omicron wave, these Republican talking points seem to have mostly come true—for most vaccinated non-senior adults, who are disproportionately Democrats.
But Democratic talking points about the severity of COVID and the need for commensurate caution remain valid and not only for the sick and elderly. Ironically, they are especially true for the unvaccinated—a disproportionately Republican group that has seen their hospitalization rates soar this winter to all-time highs. About 9,000 Americans are dying of COVID every week. Preliminary state data suggest that more than 90 percent of today’s deaths are still among unvaccinated people. This year, COVID is on pace to kill more than 300,000 unvaccinated people who would, quite likely, avoid death by getting two or three shots.
Read: Should I just get Omicron over with?
The messiness of Omicron data—record-high cases! but much milder illness!—has deepened our COVID Rashomon, in which different communities are telling themselves different stories about what’s going on, and coming to different conclusions about how to lead their lives. That’s true even within populations that, a year ago, were united in their desire to take the pandemic seriously and were outraged by those who refused to do so.
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A virus that seems both pervasive and mild offers an opening to people who are, let’s call them, “vaxxed and done.” The attitude of the VADs is this:
For more than a year, I did everything that public-health authorities told me to do. I wore masks. I canceled vacations. I made sacrifices. I got vaccinated. I got boosted. I’m happy to get boosted again. But this virus doesn’t stop. Year over year, the infections don’t decrease. Instead, virulence for people like me is decreasing, either because the virus is changing, or because of growing population immunity, or both. Americans should stop pointlessly guilting themselves about all these cases. In the past week, daily confirmed COVID cases per capita were higher than the U.S. in Ireland, Greece, Iceland, Denmark, France, the U.K., Spain, Portugal, Italy, Switzerland, and even Australia, one of the most COVID-cautious countries in the world. As the coronavirus continues its unstoppable march toward endemicity, our attitude toward the virus should follow a similar path toward stoicism. COVID is becoming something like the seasonal flu for most people who keep up with their shots, so I’m prepared to treat this like I’ve treated the flu: by basically not worrying about it and living my life normally.
It’s hard to put a number on how many people are in this group, but we have some hard data to prove that their ranks are growing. This past December, airports processed twice as many travelers compared with the same period in 2020, despite many flights being canceled. On several days, TSA-checkpoint numbers exceeded their totals from pre-pandemic 2019. This is not the picture of a country that is hunkering down for Omicron. It is the limited snapshot of a mostly vaccinated population with millions of people who are eager to move on.
I have a lot of sympathy for this group’s case, especially as it relates to schools. The risk of COVID to vaccinated teachers and even unvaccinated students seems lower than we initially thought. Meanwhile, the costs of remote schooling seem higher than we feared. The White House and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona have come out strongly in support of keeping schools open. Other Democratic leaders, like Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, are fighting reluctant teachers to keep school in person. Even among pro-vaccine Americans, a growing number of people seem to be saying they are done with remote school as a baseline COVID policy.
But there is an opposing group. Let’s call them the “vaxxed and cautious.” Here’s my best summary of their perspective:
Why on earth would we suddenly relax measures now, during the largest statistical wave of COVID ever recorded in the U.S.? We shouldn’t treat Omicron like any old seasonal flu, because it’s not like any old seasonal flu. It’s likely deadlier for those without immunity and almost certainly several times more transmissible for everybody else. We have no idea what the effects of Omicron on long COVID will be, but evidence of lingering symptoms should make us wary of just letting tens of millions of people get needlessly infected. Moreover, the health-care system is already worn down and at risk of being overloaded. Record-high caseloads are societally debilitating, creating long chains of infections that are bound to reach some immunocompromised people and the elderly, thus causing needless death. For all these reasons, we should take individual measures to throttle the spread of this virus.
If you feel a bit torn between these ideologies, I understand. I’m a bit torn myself.
Read: Hospitals are in serious trouble
In the past few weeks, several people have told me that they feel extremely safe personally but remain worried about passing along the virus to vulnerable people in their networks. So what should they do? This is not a problem with an easy answer, because the gap between individual risk and societal risk in this pandemic has never been wider. The risk of death from Omicron for boosted, healthy adults under 50 seems to be somewhere between that of riding a bike and going on an airplane. In isolation, this statistic makes the vaxxed-and-done perspective a no-brainer: Nobody consults the CDC website to decide if it’s safe to bike down the street.
But a pandemic is more than the sum of individual healthy-adult experiences. Viruses are societal multiplication problems. When a double-digit share of a public-school system comes down with Omicron, school is out, and the effects ripple through local families. When a double-digit share of a medical system comes down with Omicron, doctor and nurse availability plummets, and the effect ripples through the hospital. With workers out across industries, entire cities stop functioning. In Washington, D.C., last week, some schools had to delay opening not because of the virus but because snowplows couldn’t make the roads safe enough to get there—too many snowplow drivers were out sick.
My synthesis view is that we should start with the obvious. If I were COVID czar, my rules for early 2022 would be to try desperately to keep schools open and in person, follow through on vaccine mandates for nursing homes, distribute free rapid tests to allow people to identify their own infectiousness when they mix households with vulnerable people, and expand vaccine PSA programs, since the vaccines seem by far the most effective intervention against the virus. If we’re lucky, on the other side of this Omicron wave, “vaccinated and done” won’t be one of many viewpoints in an unfolding COVID Rashomon. It will be something like reality.
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