In the face of Omicron, the Biden administration implies a shift in pandemic policy.
President Joe Biden’s administration is confronted with a quandary stemming from mounting evidence that Omicron causes milder disease than previous variants while being so contagious that it has the potential to cause massive disruptions in the fundamental mechanics of daily life — by swamping hospitals and closing down shops, schools, and transportation. Omicron looks to be so virulent that the measures put in place to combat prior versions simply cannot be maintained while allowing the country to operate in any meaningful sense.
Blizzards of new public health guidance on how long people should isolate after positive tests and when they should be tested risk further perplexing a public that has already seen reversals and changes in such information — a disadvantage of fighting a pathogen that always seems to be one step ahead of efforts to combat it.
However, the shifting administration strategy may finally hint to a durable road back to something resembling normalcy for many Americans once the winter spike subsides — a future in which Covid-19 will remain in the background rather than being obliterated.
A noticeable shift in pandemic policy toward the virus and public views of its impact is taking place during a Christmas season in which many individuals have been infected or have witnessed loved ones or acquaintances test positive, even some who had taken strenuous attempts to avoid it up until now. This new pandemic reality emerges when Omicron, which is significantly more contagious, takes over, despite the fact that the preceding Delta wave still has certain areas under its control. However, with the public clamouring for relief from a crisis that has pummelling the nation’s psyche for portions of three winters, it appears that economic and sociological considerations, rather than only epidemiology, will play a role in determining the US reaction to the virus.
This tendency is most visible in a decision made earlier this week by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to lower the length of isolation for persons with positive Covid-19 testing from 10 to five days in most cases. It’s seen in national and local officials’ efforts to avoid politically unpalatable lockdowns and keep schools open.
It’s reasonable to wonder if Biden’s mantra that science alone will determine pandemic policy making – which encapsulates his symbolic break with former President Donald Trump’s inaction on the pandemic policy is loosening, though direct comparisons with the ex-policy President’s ignore vastly different points in the pandemic and the vaccines and treatments now available to combat it.
Omicron provides some opportunity for leaders to begin transitioning the country to a higher level of preparedness. It also entails difficult decisions.
In New York, for example, hospitalizations increased by 10% on Wednesday alone. Meanwhile, physicians are concerned about an increase in the number of youngsters who need to be hospitalised for treatment. Even if only a small percentage of those infected require hospitalisation, the massive number of infections – more than 240,000 new reported cases on Tuesday alone – could paralyse the entire medical system, further straining already overburdened front-line health workers, and cause rising death rates. In isolation, such numbers appear to call for further restrictions to halt the virus’s spread.
However, the fact that Omicron may be more of a nuisance than a serious threat to health for the majority of Americans, particularly those who have been vaccinated and boosted, has naturally raised the question of whether a new approach to combating the pandemic is required, at least until a more serious variant emerges. In a nutshell, is it time for more people to get back to living their lives with less disruption?
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious diseases expert, explained the reduction in isolation time for those who test positive and are asymptomatic to CNN’s Jake Tapper on Wednesday: “So you either shut down society, which no one wants to do, or you try and get a situation where you can safely get people back, particularly to critical jobs, without having them out for a full 10 days, so long as they are without symptoms.”
Perhaps more than at any other point in the epidemic, Omicron has begun to redefine the balance between economic, social, and societal reasons and the merely medical rationale for broad public health guidelines.
For example, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky has been outlining the reasoning for the decision to lower the isolation time for people who test positive, as long as they are asymptomatic or their symptoms are resolving and wear masks for the next five days.
In an interview published Wednesday, she told The Washington Post that the decision was “based on the expectation that a substantial number of cases may undermine society function.” She continued, saying: “There were beginning to be restrictions in society, not just in our health care workforce but also in other areas. We were finding infections in so many areas that we understood it may be a precursor to the loss of many other critical personnel.”
In a later White House briefing, Walensky claimed that the action was supported by significant scientific evidence. According to her studies on Omicron, the sickness spreads most quickly one or two days before symptoms appear and then again two to three days afterwards. She did, however, emphasise that the relaxed guideline was not just based on the characteristics of the virus, indicating that officials had examined how individuals who needed to return to work would behave in practise.