CHICAGO – With infection rates rising, the Omicron variant has ushered in a disorienting new phase of the pandemic, leaving Americans frustrated and dismayed that the basics they thought they understood about the coronavirus are evolving more faster than ever.
There were reasons for increased concern and reasons for consolation: Omicron is more transmissible than previous variants, but it appears to cause milder symptoms in many people. Hospitalizations have reached new highs in some states, but ‘occasional patients’ – people who test positive for Covid-19 after being admitted for another reason – account for almost half of their cases in some hospitals.
Public health officials, in response to the new variant, cut the recommended isolation period for people with positive tests in half to five days instead of 10 days, while also suggesting people replace their masks of tissue with medical grade masks when possible.
âOmicron quickly turned into something just different,â said Dr. Allison Arwady, senior Chicago health official.
Amid evolving federal public health guidance and the new separate variant, President Biden’s former transition team called on the president to adopt a brand new national pandemic strategy focused on the ‘new normal’ to live with the virus indefinitely, not to wipe it out.
And Americans, faced with these new facts, warnings and cautions, have reacted with a mixture of confusion, vigilance and indifference. Left mostly to navigate on their own, they face a range of uncertain risks – taking a bus? visit friends? eat inside? – hour by hour.
Many people wonder if they should keep their kids home from school or cancel vacations and out-of-town dinners. They are scrambling for home antigen testing or appointments for sophisticated PCR testing and ditching the cloth masks in favor of KN95 and N95. In some cities, they have resumed wearing masks even outdoors and ordering grocery deliveries or stocking up to avoid travel for days to come.
Others have ignored the increase in cases, focusing on the encouraging fact that some people infected with the Omicron variant suffer little more than a cough and runny nose – if they are showing symptoms.
While some places have maintained limits like restrictions on indoor dining for the unvaccinated, there is little appetite for wide closings. A restaurateur in Austin, TX said customers were on the go, keen to gather in groups.
“It’s obvious people are done with this,” said Daniel Brooks, 45, owner of two restaurants in Austin.
For the most part, American life hasn’t locked itself into the latest wave – businesses remain open and schools are largely in-person session – but this variation has brought significant disruption to daily life and threatens to bring even more.
Police, paramedics and firefighters have been kept away from the virus, affecting response times in some cities. Across the country, millions of Americans have been sick at home in recent days, sparking debates over school testing and safety measures and alarming officials who told the public in candid terms last week that ‘they were in dire need of hospital and health care beds. workers.
“I suspect that almost everyone in the state has just had Covid, has it today, or knows someone who has,” said Governor John Bel Edwards of Louisiana. “There has never been more disease in our condition.”
Omicron first appeared in southern Africa in late November, and by Christmas it was the dominant variant in the United States, Britain, and parts of mainland Europe, including Denmark and Portugal, which have some of the rates. highest immunization rates in the world.
The record number of cases fueled by Omicron has produced their own form of chaos around the world, sidelining millions of infected workers, causing shortages of testing kits and forcing many governments to reimpose social restrictions. Spain, Greece and Italy have ordered their citizens to resume wearing masks outdoors; the Netherlands withdrew into a complete lockdown.
The variant is now hitting almost every corner of the world. India, bracing for a tidal wave of infections with only half of its population vaccinated, has set up makeshift Covid rooms in convention halls. In Argentina recently, the test positivity rate reached a staggering 30%.
But with signs that the Omicron wave in South Africa is receding, without causing another wave of deaths, many countries have shifted to a strategy of living with the virus, choosing to keep businesses and schools open rather than risk the economic ravages of more blockages.
Health officials in the United States, two years weary of repeating similar appeals to the public, have tried to point out that the Omicron variant is unlike any other phase of the pandemic.
Daily case reports have roughly quintupled over the past month as Omicron has taken hold. About 650,000 new cases are identified every day, more than double the peak of last winter – a number that is certainly an undercount, as it doesn’t include many results from home antigen tests.
So far, hospitalizations have increased at a much slower rate than cases. But the number of coronavirus patients continues to grow rapidly, reaching around 134,000 nationwide, from around 67,000 a month ago. In many cities, doctors say, a smaller proportion of Covid patients are landing in intensive care units or requiring mechanical ventilation, but the large number of patients is sounding the alarm bells.
Deaths, which is a lagging indicator, have yet to increase as significantly. About 1,500 deaths from Covid-19 are announced every day in the United States. It could take weeks, officials said, before it is known whether the Omicron variant will cause another big wave of deaths in the United States, where more than 830,000 people have died from the coronavirus.
Andrew Noymer, professor of public health at the University of California, Irvine, said the Omicron variant was “legitimately complicated” for many Americans to understand because it clearly differs from previous variants.
âOmicron is softer than Delta, but it is more transmissible,â he said. “It changes two things at the same time.”
Changing advice on isolation and quarantines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also left Americans with questions about the severity of the variant. Many employers, acting on the advice of public health officials, have encouraged sick workers to return to work after just five days, even without testing showing they are negative for the virus.
âThe confusion is compounded,â said Dr. Gill Wright, director of health for the city of Nashville. “People say it’s supposed to get really bad, but can we get back to work faster?” “
The coronavirus pandemic: what you need to know
In rural Michigan, people with symptoms of coronavirus have arrived at hospitals in recent weeks repeating conventional wisdom that once you’ve had Covid, you’re unlikely to contract it again soon.
âA lot of them are saying, ‘This can’t be Covid, I had it a few months ago,'” said Dr Mark Hamed, an emergency room doctor in Sandusky, Michigan. “There you go, they tested positive.”
About 62% of Americans are fully immunized, a number that has barely budged in recent weeks. Even fully vaccinated and stimulated individuals have been infected with the Omicron variant, although health officials say their infections appear to be less severe than in unvaccinated people.
Across the country, a record number of public sector workers have been laid off due to an increase in coronavirus infections, leaving officials scrambling to reassure residents that if they call 911 someone will show up. – if a little later than normal.
In Dallas, 204 of the city’s estimated 2,100 fire and rescue workers were in quarantine Thursday due to positive Covid-19 tests – the most since the start of the pandemic, according to Jason Evans, a spokesperson for the department. He said about a quarter of the department’s total positive tests since March 2020 came from the past two weeks.
Los Angeles city officials said in a press conference Thursday that nearly 300 firefighters were on leave due to the virus, the most the department has seen at any one time. Jeff Cretan, spokesperson for Mayor London Breed of San Francisco, said 140 firefighters and 188 city police workers have tested positive or are absent due to quarantine protocols; as well as 110 workers from the city’s transit agency.
Schools and colleges faced the uncertainty of whether to teach in person or virtually, sometimes while balancing the competing arguments of parents, teachers and students.
In Chicago last week, the powerful teachers’ union and Mayor Lori Lightfoot clashed over safety and coronavirus testing in a dispute that closed schools for days in the nation’s third largest school district.
At Rhodes College, a small liberal arts school in Memphis, officials announced during the holidays that the start of in-person classes was being delayed by two weeks – a bummer for students exasperated by online classes and eager for the type of college experience they had hoped for.
âEvery semester it feels like we’re almost back to normal, and then it’s revoked all over again,â said John Howell, a major student in political economy and philosophy entering his final semester. “It feels like every routine is going to be broken and you should expect that.”
Bishop James Dixon, senior pastor of the Community of Faith Church in Houston, said he and his fellow church leaders struggled to find the right balance as Omicron spilled over.
“No one has a precise answer,” he said. âIt’s trial and error. It’s hectic. And we’re supposed to be people of faith and make a decision and take a direction. “
Mr Dixon said the virus scared many worshipers as they now know so many who have contracted it.
“Things are better than they were,” he said, “but at the same time they are worse than they were because the numbers are skyrocketing.”
Shashank Bengali contributed to reports from London, Jill cowan from Los Angeles, J. David Goodman from Houston, Rick rojas from Nashville and Mitch smith from Chicago.