The Omicron variant is here, and we must once again confront the potential for a crushing winter surge of COVID-19 infections. Why is this happening, and why are we at risk? Today, we blend the personal and the societal to better understand the struggles of living through a still active pandemic.
Oh my Omicron. This again?
For the last 21 months, we’ve been tracking the state of COVID-19 in our state and country. Since March 2020, we’ve been tracking our infections and community spread. Since December 2020, we’ve been tracking the administration of COVID-19 vaccine shots. Since June 2021, we’ve been tracking the spread of the Delta variant near and far. And since June 2021, I’ve been chronicling the cautious resumption of my travel plans.
Shortly after I landed in Orange County, California, for Thanksgiving and my father’s birthday, I saw the news that I’ve been dreading for some time: Omicron has arrived. While here, I noticed even more dreadful news: Cases were detected in San Francisco and Minneapolis. The San Francisco patient had just returned from South Africa, but the Minneapolis patient had only traveled to and from New York. Soon enough New York state announced five confirmed Omicron cases there, a second California omicron case emerged in Los Angeles, and Colorado and Hawaii announced Omicron cases there as well.
By Friday night, another five Northern California Omicron cases emerged in patients who flew to Wisconsin last month after just one of them also traveled abroad. Meanwhile in New York, additional Omicron cases emerged that appeared to confirm scientists’ initial consensus that Omicron had already begun to spread here in America before President Joe Biden restricted travel to and from eight African countries where he and other politicians mistakenly believed Omicron first developed. As of yesterday, the Omicron variant has been detected in at least 17 states.
Some potentially good news is that the first two California Omicron patients and the Minnesota patient were all fully vaccinated, the Minnesota Omicron patient also recently got his COVID-19 vaccine booster shot, and all have thus far only been experiencing mild infections. If this pattern holds with newer and upcoming Omicron breakthrough infections, we’ll have some reassurance that our current COVID-19 vaccines continue to hold up well – even against Omicron. However, it’s still early. And since statistics on hospitalizations and deaths tend to be lagging indicators, we’ll probably need at least a couple more weeks to better understand how the Omicron variant works and whether or not it ends up fueling an even worse COVID-19 resurgence than the most recent Delta Surge.
Return to California
Three and a half months ago, I was worried about the ongoing Delta Surge. And while visiting family in California in August, my father got the news that his older (and immunocompromised) brother died of COVID-19 after flying to South Carolina to visit his stridently anti-vaccine and anti-mask daughter.
When I first flew back to Orange County the day before Thanksgiving, our COVID-19 situation finally seemed to calm down again. Less than 24 hours later, news began to break on a new variant. By the time I began to roam around, Omicron was officially on the books. Immediately, I felt a toxic mix of sorrow, anger, regret, and exasperation. (Editor’s Note: Stay tuned this week for a special COVID-19 Update with more information on Omicron.)
Regardless of all these emotions, I was still there. I had to just make the best of it. Besides, I already got my COVID-19 vaccine booster shot in October, and I had plenty of masks packed in my bags. Also: My father still needed his own vaccine booster shot. I knew I had a limited window of time to ensure he got his booster, so we just had to get it done.
Booster Time for My Father
Since my father is also immunocompromised, and since he was also approaching six months since his second shot, I knew this was the time for him to get boosted. As the news continued to flood in on Omicron, it increasingly felt like a race against time.
To further complicate matters, my dad had just changed his health insurance and HMO. Come on: After everything he endured since his November 2019 heart attack – including another fight over another hospital trip that his doctor specifically ordered this past April – can you blame him? Nonetheless, we ran into a new set of issues with the new pharmacy that his new HMO directed him to. And nonetheless, we persisted.
Finally last weekend, we shuffled back to the nearest branch of his designated pharmacy. Thankfully the pharmacy wasn’t too busy, so they managed to check him in and process him relatively quickly. Honestly the paperwork took longer than the actual vaccination, and he didn’t have as much paperwork to complete as I did in October! But hey, at least we finally did it. My dad got his booster time, and hopefully it’s just in time for Omicron’s probably inevitable arrival in Orange County.
Omicron serves as another terrible example of why it pays to be proactive on public health.
For all the Sturm und Drang – and for all the pomp and circumstance – surrounding President Joe Biden’s African travel bans and Republican attacks over Biden’s slow move to enact the travel bans, we have more evidence indicating that Omicron was already spreading here in the U.S. well before South African public health officials officially detected Omicron in their country. Back in May 2020, we sounded the alarms on these very pages about America’s insufficient public health infrastructure: A stronger and more thorough system of testing, contact tracing, and genomic sequencing could have spared us so much unnecessary pain, suffering, and loss of lives. Now with Omicron, we must once again confront the consequences of our underdeveloped public health system as our lack of testing gave us a dangerously false sense of security that led to the wrong-headed rush to blame America’s Omicron infections on Africa.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve had to learn the hard way that public health matters. Countries that made critical early investments in public health, and countries that made proactive decisions to protect public health, have thus far kept their hospitalization and death tolls well below ours. These other countries have also gone on to overtake the U.S. in vaccinations (per capita) despite America’s head start early this year.
We’ve been subjected to a torrent of revisionist history on COVID-19 in the last two years: from former President Donald Trump’s ongoing lies about his own COVID-19 infection, to anti-vaccine celebrities’ misuse of “free speech” rhetoric to veil the larger anti-public health disinformation campaign that they participate in. Yet time and time again, we’ve faced terrible reminders of how ill prepared so many of our public health authorities remain, even after they were specifically warned of this clear and present danger. Unless and until we fix our public health infrastructure and put a better effort to countering the Influencer Infodemic, we may very well be trapped in an unnecessarily lethal feedback loop of otherwise increasingly preventable disease.
Omicron serves as another terrible reminder that shortsighted selfishness ultimately doesn’t work.
Since early 2020, we’ve all had to learn how to take care of ourselves and each other – particularly when those with far more money and power only looked out for themselves. What’s so infuriating about this deliberate nearsightedness is not just the craven greed, but also how it ultimately fuels a larger cycle of destruction. By not leading with the truth, politicians create a cycle of distrust that inevitably leads to a “boy who cried wolf” situation when they actually do speak any truth. By not investing early and often in public health, we only leave ourselves unprepared when the next pandemic emerges. By valuing private profits and poll numbers over people’s lives, the losses eventually boomerang and harm far more than they allegedly help.
By giving into select pharmaceutical companies’ desire to hoard their patents and “intellectual property”, we get a double whammy of an unnecessary vaccine shortage that leaves most of the world for unfettered COVID-19 transmission and political fodder for “bad faith hot take artists” to misuse to further intensify distrust of the COVID-19 vaccines. By refusing to implement something along the lines of a comprehensive test-trace-isolate strategy, COVID-19 spread more freely and the premature loosening of public health safety rules only caused a short-term economic reaction that eventually led to larger economic problems. By worrying more about the alleged political fallout of so-called “lockdowns” more than the actual COVID-19 pandemic, America still leads the developed world in COVID-19 deaths, and Republicans continue to shamelessly troll Democrats on COVID-19 despite their own horrific track record.
We don’t have to remain in this brutal cycle of unnecessary suffering and dying. It may not always be easy, but doing the right thing ultimately pays off. While I like to think I’m doing my part by getting my booster and masking up in crowded and/or indoor spaces, I know I can’t fix this myself. Neither can my father, even though I’m relieved that he finally got his own booster shot. Ultimately we all must take more collective and society-wide action, and we have to act globally. If we don’t, we may end up being the next ones to needlessly suffer one way or another.
If you have further questions about COVID-19 and your health, check Immunize Nevada for more information on vaccine availability in your area, check Nevada Health Response for testing in your area, and check Nevada 211 for more health care resources. If you’re in need of additional aid, check the Nevada Current’s and Battle Born Progress’ resource guides. If you can afford proper treatment and you are fortunate enough to help others in need, please donate to larger operations like Direct Relief and Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, and to local groups like Three Square. And for goodness sake, please maintain best practices to help stop the spread.
The cover photo was taken by me.