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How worried should you be about the uptick in Covid-19 cases and the emergence of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus?
The answer very much depends on who you’re listening to.
US authorities want vaccinated Americans to live their lives.
President Joe Biden, even as he acknowledged expectations of a surge in cases of the Omicron variant, sought to assure Americans – vaccinated and boosted Americans, that is – to go ahead and celebrate their holidays.
“If you are vaccinated and follow the precautions we know, well, you should feel comfortable celebrating the Christmas holiday as you plan to,” he said during a speech from the White House on Tuesday. “You know, you’ve done the right thing. Enjoy the holiday season.”
World health officials sounded very different.
“An event canceled is better than a life canceled,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization.
He said that despite some reports, it’s too soon to say Omicron will cause less severe illness than previous strains of the coronavirus.
“We’re concerned that people are dismissing Omicron as mild,” Tedros said. “Surely, we have learned by now that we underestimate this virus at our peril.”
Biden, on the other hand, had two messages. The vaccinated should wear masks, be careful and carry on, he said. The unvaccinated have a different reality.
“Omicron is serious, potentially deadly business for unvaccinated people,” Biden said.
Elements of Biden’s new Covid-19 plan:
- He announced more involvement by FEMA to open up new vaccination sites.
- The administration has said it will provide 500 million at-home Covid-19 tests starting next month.
- And there will be more involvement by the National Guard when it’s needed to help health systems in states.
The divide over how to deal with Omicron extends beyond politicians and public health professionals.
The hockey season is on hold until after Christmas.
The NBA will play on.
Related: These are the latest Covid-19 postponements and cancellations in professional and college sport
Many companies are rethinking their return-to-the-office plans, many of which had already been delayed to the new year.
The economists at Moody’s Analytics are taking in the double whammy of the Omicron surge and the likelihood that Biden won’t be able to enact his social spending plan, and they’re set to downgrade its outlook for the US economy.
But vaccinated people can carry on with their lives, experts say. Multiple doctors who appeared on CNN on Tuesday said they would be celebrating the winter holidays with loved ones.
“I’m not canceling holiday plans,” said retired Adm. Dr. Brett Giroir, the former Health and Human Services assistant secretary for health. He said families with severely immunocompromised members or those over 85 should think again.
“We do have immunosuppressed people in our family. We’re being careful. We’re making sure we don’t expose them or risk them. It’s an individual decision. I missed Christmas last year.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top White House adviser on Covid-19, recently said he’d have no trouble flying on an airplane.
“If I had to, I would have no problem getting on an airplane,” he told CNBC. “I’m vaccinated. I’m boosted. I know we have to wear a mask on an airplane.”
Dr. Carlos del Rio, executive associate dean of the Emory University School of Medicine, said he’ll be giving out rapid tests as Christmas presents this year.
“We are going to be making sure that nobody who attends has any symptoms even though they may say this is just a cold. And then we are going to test everybody,” he said. He’s also going to keep the windows open.
She’s no medical professional, but I enjoyed this essay on CNN Opinion by Jill Filipovic: I decided to travel for the holidays. Here’s why.
While most experts warn of a massive wave of Omicron infections on the horizon, there is additional disagreement over what that will mean for people who get it and for the health care system.
New York has seen the most known cases of Omicron in the US so far, but it has not yet seen a corresponding increase in hospitalizations, although hospitalization numbers tend to lag behind case numbers by a few weeks.
In Texas, the US recorded its first confirmed Omicron-related death, in an unvaccinated man who had previously had Covid-19.
“The individual was at higher risk of severe complications from Covid-19 due to his unvaccinated status and had underlying health conditions,” according to a news release from Harris County Public Health.
Tedros, from the WHO, said everyone needs to be on guard no matter how severe the disease ends up being.
Research is ongoing, but some early studies have suggested that Omicron can sneak past current vaccines but might cause milder disease.
“Even if Omicron does cause less severe disease, the sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm unprepared health systems,” Tedros said.
US epidemiologists are suggesting the health system could be tested if health workers who are vaccinated and boosted are infected in large numbers and have to stay home.
California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom announced an effort Tuesday to require health care workers to get a booster shot.
Fauci has suggested allowing health care workers who test positive to return to the job before the recommended 10-day isolation period if they are vaccinated, without symptoms, and wearing an N95 mask.
Others, like Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the school of tropical medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, have different ideas. He suggested giving health care workers a second booster shot, which is essentially a fourth dose of vaccine.
“That would restore that level of virus-neutralizing antibody and keep them protected a short period of time. For a couple of months over the omicron surge,” he said on CNN Tuesday.
The idea of a shorter isolation period for vaccinated people with breakthrough infections has been pushed for fields outside of health care.
Delta CEO Ed Bastian wrote the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday asking the health agency to “reconsider the current guideline for 10 days of isolation in fully vaccinated individuals who experience breakthrough infections,” according to a report in Reuters.
Many Americans are moving around the country. More than 2 million flew each of the past five days, according to the TSA. They are ready, despite Omicron, to get on with it.