December 22, 2021

Many Americans are already tired of omicron

Daily Briefing

    As the holidays begin and omicron continues to spread, many Americans are struggling with pandemic fatigue, potentially leaving them less likely to take precautions against the new variant. However, Ashish Jha argues that a "middle course between dismay and dismissal" is needed to combat this newest wave.

    The omicron variant: The 'good,' 'bad,' and 'ugly' scenarios

    Many Americans are already tired of omicron

    As omicron rapidly spreads across the United States, many Americans are not panicked, the New York Times reports, but instead simply exhausted.

    According to Axios, news of omicron, which may be the most transmissible variant seen so far, has not captured Americans' attention as much as previous variants.

    Google searches related to Covid-19, for instance, remain far below their peaks during the delta variant's surge, and data from the news monitoring service NewsWhip suggests that per-article social media interactions on stories about Covid-19 have declined by about 90% since March 2020.

    "My sense of things is that the lower levels of public engagement are due to pandemic fatigue setting in, and a perceived sense of this variant is probably no more dangerous than previous variants," said Chris Haynes, a political science professor at the University of New Haven.

    After two years of pandemic news, vaccinated people "may have concluded that there is not much more they can do or need to learn," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy. On the other hand, unvaccinated people, "assume that infection is unworrisome or inevitable or that they have already survived infection or that they are invulnerable to it," she said.

    According to Axios, this lack of widespread concern among Americans could hinder the country's response to the omicron variant.

    For example, Hawaii has seen a significant jump in Covid-19 cases, with data showing a 468% increase in daily cases over the past two weeks. However, rates of booster shots among the state's residents have remained low, the Times reports. Currently, only around 17% of all fully vaccinated residents have received a booster shot—the second-lowest rate in the country.

    Hilton Raethal, president of the Healthcare Association of Hawaii, said he blamed pandemic fatigue. "'I've done so much for so long, I'm sort of reluctant to do any more,'" he said, explaining the public's sentiment towards the pandemic.

    How Americans can safely navigate omicron this winter

    Going into the holidays, many people may be split between panic and indifference about omicron's potential effects, but while "[b]oth perspectives are understandable[,] neither is helpful," writes Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University's School of Public Health.

    Instead, Jha writes that successfully navigating the next wave of pandemic will require a "middle course—one designed with clear goals in mind: preventing deaths, protecting our hospitals from crushing caseloads, and keeping schools and businesses open."

    To achieve these goals, Jha outlines three steps using "proven, effective tools we already have, while giving in to neither dismay nor dismissal."

    1. Increase vaccination rates, particularly of booster shots

    According to Jha, vaccines are "the most powerful and effective tool in our arsenal." In particular, Jha notes that "it's clear that protection against both delta and omicron requires three vaccine doses."

    Currently, only 20% of eligible adults, including half of elderly Americans, have received a booster shot, and more people need to be boosted as quickly as possible to "avoid high-risk Americans flooding hospitals and dying," Jha writes.

    2. Increase the availability and usage of rapid tests

    In addition to vaccines, Jha writes that Americans need "a massive increase in the availability and the use of rapid tests," especially as they travel to see friends and family this holiday season.

    Although rapid tests remain in limited supply, Jha writes that situation will likely improve over time, particularly if the government continues to introduce new measures to increase availability. For instance, President Joe Biden on Tuesday announced the federal government would purchase and distribute 500 million rapid tests free of charge to the public.

    In addition, Jha notes that rapid tests could be an important tool in keeping schools and workplaces open. Instead of sending people home to quarantine after being exposed to the coronavirus, some schools and businesses may consider a "test-to-stay" strategy, in which a person can still attend if they continue to test negative on regular rapid tests.

    3. Take precautions in social activities

    Finally, Jha suggests that people at ordinary risk from Covid-19 make "modest sacrifices" over the next few weeks to prevent the unnecessary spread of the coronavirus. Some of these sacrifices include avoiding large holiday parties and remaining masked in indoor gatherings.

    In particular, Jha writes that masks can be used to limit "runaway infection rates." At a local level, Jha suggests that authorities encourage residents to wear masks when hospitals start filling up with Covid-19 cases, then rescind mask recommendations when hospitals are less overwhelmed.

    Overall, Jha writes that while "[t]his isn’t the holiday season we had wished for ... it needn't be anything like the fearful and isolated winter a year ago." (Mazzei, New York Times, 12/22; Fischer/Rothschild, Axios, 12/21; Jha, The Atlantic, 12/19)

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