Last summer, when President Joe Biden proclaimed to Americans that we were “closer than ever to declaring our independence” from COVID-19, it seemed unfathomable the nation would find itself in the throes of yet another pandemic surge just six months later. Yet, here we are again. Even with over 500 million vaccines administered across the country — and over 70% of Americans age 12 and older fully vaccinated — COVID-19 has once again upended daily life. By some measures, 2022 feels eerily like 2020 all over again.
The current surge is fueled by the highly-contagious omicron variant of COVID-19, which has spread through the nation at unprecedented speeds and sent case counts to dizzying heights. On Jan. 10, health officials reported 1.48 million new cases, more in a single day than at any other point in the pandemic, shattering the previous record set just days before. With the explosion in cases has come a spike in hospitalizations, pushing many healthcare facilities, doctors and nurses to the brink. In Michigan, hospitals across the state are near or at capacity as pandemic hospitalizations break records.
In the midst of all this, some governments are responding with the harsh tactics we’ve all become familiar with over the past two years. In Canada and Europe, which face similar surges, governments have instituted a slew of measures including lockdowns and closures of schools and businesses to combat the spread. Though it may seem at first glance that current conditions warrant a similar move by President Biden and governors across the country, it’s critical we update our COVID-19 game plan and avoid the same traps we’ve fallen into before.
As alarming as the latest pandemic metrics are, they have to be put into perspective. First and foremost, experts believe the omicron variant — which now accounts for over 98% of new COVID-19 cases in the country — is less severe than previous strains like delta. A new study found patients who contracted omicron were 53% less likely to require hospitalization and over 90% less likely to die than those who suffered from the delta variant. As in earlier waves, Americans who are fully vaccinated continue to have a good prognosis. While omicron has evaded some of the vaccine’s protection against symptomatic infection, the vaccines are still extremely protective against severe disease. A booster shot, which more Americans are receiving every day, bolsters protection further. Following Canada and Europe’s lead and shutting down schools, colleges and businesses as cases surge simply isn’t supported by the data.
Returning to harsher containment measures wouldn’t only be unwise because omicron is a milder variant relative to earlier strains of COVID-19. Omicron is also wildly transmissible, even more so than the highly-infectious delta variant. In the early days of the pandemic, closing down large sectors of the country proved to be an effective tool in slowing the spread. But today, with omicron skyrocketing in almost every county across the nation, preventing every individual case is no longer possible or practical.
“Omicron, with its extraordinary, unprecedented degree of efficiency of transmissibility, will ultimately find just about everybody,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said, noting the vaccinated and boosted who do get infected will “do reasonably well in the sense of not having hospitalization and death.” Though lockdowns may reduce cases in the short term, they won’t stop the virus from spreading over the long run. It’s imperative that American leaders, from the local to the federal level, prioritize preventing severe disease over cases, which are almost always mild for the vaccinated and even sometimes asymptomatic.
Already, President Biden has turned his focus toward preventing hospitalization and death, reassuring most Americans that it’s “very unlikely that you become seriously ill.” The Biden administration recently took action to support hospitals and promote vaccines and testing to keep the country running. Many state leaders have taken similar actions, acknowledging that COVID-19 lockdowns and closures are no longer prudent. Gov. Jared Polis, D-Colo., has refrained from imposing stringent measures and said “Getting three doses of the vaccine is highly effective and all but negates any risk that you face.”
Despite the sound arguments against locking down to slow the omicron surge, some segments of American society have temporarily backpedaled into the pre-vaccine era. Perhaps most notably, Chicago Public Schools — which serves nearly 350,000 students — closed down for a four-day period over the rapid rise in cases. Chicago students have since returned to school, though the closure proved to be a massive disruption to both students and parents who have already suffered enough. Students in Atlanta, Baltimore, Milwaukee and elsewhere have faced similar disruptions to in-person learning, though staffing shortages have necessitated some of the closures.
College campuses across the country have also shuttered to start the new year in response to omicron. Nearby, Michigan State University moved classes online until Jan. 31, joining a lengthy list of institutions nationwide that have pivoted to remote learning. Schools like Yale University have taken it a step further, telling students to refrain from dining in off-campus restaurants, even outside.
Closing down schools, colleges and businesses is not the way to navigate the omicron surge. There is no reason to believe short-term lockdowns will do anything significant to curb the spread of a virus that is hyper-transmissible. After two years spent fighting COVID-19, we have the tools to address the pandemic while keeping society running as normal as possible. Vaccines are readily available to any American who has yet to get the shot, while an array of high-quality masks like N95s are much easier to obtain than earlier in the pandemic. For people who do come down with COVID-19, there are more promising treatments and therapeutics all the time, including a new Pfizer pill aimed at keeping patients out of the hospital.
Another powerful tool we have at our disposal is testing. While finding COVID-19 testing has proven to be a struggle at times, the Biden administration has ordered one billion at-home tests to be delivered to make it easier for Americans to protect themselves and others. Widespread testing provides a real-time picture of where COVID-19 is most active, ensuring the infected can quarantine and schools or businesses with high case counts can temporarily shut down to reduce the spread.
The University of Michigan’s plan to hold in-person classes rather than shifting to remote learning demonstrates that with mitigation measures, there’s no reason why omicron should reverse the months of progress we’ve made. While it’s critical we remain vigilant until the current wave subsides, Americans who have done everything right for the past two years cannot endure another second out of school or work. We have what it takes to find a way out of this pandemic without sliding backward.
Evan Stern is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.