With the omicron variant sending coronavirus cases spiking across the country, the pandemic is once again upending daily life and evoking the early days of the outbreak as scientists race to understand the still-unknown implications of this new type of coronavirus.
The worrying signs suddenly seem everywhere: Professional sports leagues are canceling games. Colleges are sending students home from campus. Secretary of State Antony Blinken cut short his trip to Southeast Asia.
With the number of omicron cases appearing to double every two days, confirmed U.S. coronavirus infections have increased more than 50% in roughly two weeks, rising from 81,900 on Nov. 30 to 124,110 on Dec. 16, according to The Washington Post’s rolling seven-day average.
After a briefing on omicron from his coronavirus response team Thursday, President Joe Biden warned that for unvaccinated Americans, “We are looking at a winter of severe illness and death.” He added, “Omicron is here. It’s going to start to spread much more rapidly at the beginning of the year, and the only real protection is to get your shots.”
Yet some studies suggest that many people only experience mild symptoms from omicron, and vaccine boosters appear to protect against severe illness from the variant, inducing a sort of whiplash for Americans trying to determine how to live their lives and what precautions to take.
What health officials do know is that omicron is already infecting scores of Americans, dealing a psychological blow to an exhausted nation and provoking new policy challenges. The outbreak has been fueled both by omicron, which is spreading at astounding speed, and the older delta variant.
“It’s breathtaking to watch the rate at which everything is increasing right now,” said S. Wesley Long, medical director of diagnostic microbiology at Houston Methodist.
He predicted that omicron could overtake delta to comprise 100% of his health system’s coronavirus cases by January. “I don’t think any of us thought that we would ever see anything transmit faster than delta,” Long said. “Now we have the omicron variant that’s even more transmissible.”
Officials believe the number of cases will continue to skyrocket in coming weeks, and they are gravely concerned about how the more infectious variant will swamp health systems and devastate communities with low vaccination rates.
For Biden, the new wave once again undercuts his promise to beat back the pandemic and usher in the return to normalcy that he has vowed to accomplish since the emergence of the pandemic nearly two years ago. Despite the administration’s robust vaccination campaign, a broad swath of Americans remains stubbornly opposed to the shots and bitter political polarization has hobbled the country’s recovery efforts.
News of the new variant is proving disorienting for many Americans, as mask mandates are reinstituted in some Democratic-led states, parents deal again with school closures, and families question whether they can safely gather for the holidays.
White House officials have said they are not calling for lockdowns, and their message remains centered on getting more Americans vaccinated and boosted. Early data shows that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine regimen, combined with a booster shot, provide the strong protection against the omicron variant, although less protection than against earlier forms of the virus.
Officials concede Americans may get infected with the virus even after getting boosted, but they remain confident the vaccines will protect against hospitalization and death.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, D, last week said he saw no need for the state to tell people to wear masks now that there is widespread access to vaccines. “We see it as the end of the medical emergency,” Polis said, adding, “Those who get sick, it’s almost entirely their own darn fault.”
Ashish Jha, the dean of Brown University’s public health school, said leaders are struggling to navigate political resistance and pandemic-related fatigue.
“I’ve spoken to a few different governors over the last week, and there’s very, very little appetite for doing much at this point, which I think may end up being really costly,” Jha said. “Because if they don’t act now, we may find ourselves in a real challenge in a month, and then putting in these kinds of things will be far less effective.”
Health officials worry that if even a small percentage of those infected with omicron become hospitalized, it could overwhelm a health system already dealing with the delta variant and the seasonal flu.
The new variant, which was first detected in southern Africa in November, has been confirmed in dozens of nations around the world. Rochelle Walensky, who leads the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Wednesday the number of omicron cases appears to double every two days, which is significantly faster than prior variants.
Walensky said, “We should be having public indoor masking for everyone, vaccinated or unvaccinated” in areas of high transmission, a designation that applies to 90% of U.S. counties, even as many local leaders have disregarded the guidance.
Researchers from the University of Hong Kong on Wednesday published preliminary data suggesting the omicron variant multiplies 70 times faster than earlier forms of the coronavirus in a person’s respiratory system, which could explain why it appears to transmit so quickly. Multiple studies also have found that omicron’s mutations enable it to evade some of the immune protections conferred by previous infections and vaccinations.
Experts have said they are optimistic that omicron will cause less severe cases than prior forms of the virus, particularly for people who were previously infected or vaccinated, but they caution that the data remains preliminary.
“Where it gets really complicated is that if we see many times of additional cases, you can still have a reduction in severity of illness and still have, in terms of absolute numbers, more cases requiring hospitalization or intensive care,” said Michael Osterholm, who leads the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and advised Biden’s transition team on the coronavirus. “We don’t know yet.”
Even some of the nation’s top health experts say that after nearly two years of dodging the virus, they are resigned to being infected by omicron.
“I think I probably will,” Osterholm said. “I’ve been very careful.” He noted, “This is not even an elevator ride issue anymore,” meaning people cannot protect themselves simply by avoiding proximity to others in places like elevators.
Eric Topol, founder of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, predicted this week that U.S. coronavirus cases could soon reach 1 million per day, significantly outpacing the previous peak of about 250,000 cases per day in January.
Celine Gounder, an epidemiologist and infectious-diseases specialist who also advised Biden’s transition team, said the administration has been too focused on the number of infections as a marker for the state of the pandemic. Hospitalizations and deaths are a better gauge, she said.
“The fact is that the vaccines we have are excellent, but they’re not going to prevent all infections, and I think setting that as a target - ‘We’re trying to prevent all infections’ - they have set themselves up for an impossible task,” Gounder said. “It makes it look like the vaccines are failing. They are not.”
As tens of millions of Americans prepare to gather for the holidays, health experts are urging them to use rapid coronavirus tests to detect infections and fend off outbreaks.
“Take those tests, and then you can be assured and have an enjoyable holiday,” former White House adviser Andy Slavitt said on his podcast this week.
But U.S. supply of rapid tests has lagged behind other nations, and the White House has been criticized for moving too slowly to make the tests more widely available.
Several countries are reeling from the resurgent virus. In the United Kingdom, chief medical officer Chris Whitty urged residents on Wednesday to limit social interactions.
“Don’t mix with people you don’t have to,” Whitty said at a news conference, warning that coronavirus “records will be broken a lot” in the coming weeks.
In France, President Emmanuel Macron refused to rule out mandatory coronavirus vaccinations, and in Malaysia, Blinken cut short his trip on Wednesday after a member of the press corps accompanying him tested positive for the virus.
In the United States, Broadway shows have closed, some colleges are sending students home early for winter break, and other businesses grappled with uncertainty.
“This is going to wipe through the United States,” said one senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak publicly.
In professional sports leagues, an explosion of positive cases has sidelined athletes in recent days, prompting officials to overhaul protocols and attempt to preserve as many games as possible. Over 100 National Football League players were placed on the reserve list after testing positive or being in close contact with someone who did. The National Basketball Association rescheduled two Chicago Bulls games, its first postponements of the season, after an outbreak sidelined 10 of the team’s players.
Despite such events, officials have been buoyed by data that show booster shots provide robust protection. The problem remains the entrenched opposition of many Americans to the vaccines, which is increasingly exasperating administration officials.
“We have all the tools. The science has delivered,” the senior administration official said. “There has to be a resignation that there is something deeply broken in this country. The administration has done everything it can do. We’ll see how we respond this time. Virtually all these deaths have been preventable since April.”