Omicron Is No Excuse to Prolong the Pandemic
Is the United States on the cusp of a new wave of COVID-19 devastation, thanks to the omicron variant?
The Biden administration has banned travel to the United States from eight countries in southern Africa. Public officials nationwide are calling for vigilance and caution — and for people to get vaccinated or boosted.
Omicron certainly merits watching. But our leaders must not overreact by turning back to lockdowns, forced closures, and curbs on gatherings because they feel the need to do something.
The consensus among many scientists — including Director of the National Institutes of Health Dr. Francis Collins — is that it’s far too early to tell what kind of threat the variant poses, much less the kind of response it warrants.
But two years into the pandemic, there is quite a bit that we do know about COVID-19 — how it spreads, and how we can reduce our risk of contracting it. We also know that the vaccines can minimize, if not outright eliminate, our risk of being hospitalized or dying of the virus.
We don’t yet know exactly how effective those vaccines are against omicron. But the best available information indicates that a full course of vaccination, combined with a booster shot, provides robust protection against COVID-19 in all forms.
In other words, there’s no reason for fear to drive our response to omicron. Unfortunately, fear — and a misguided bias toward action, no matter the unintended consequences — has motivated much of what our leaders have done during the pandemic.
Consider, for instance, how long school closures persisted, even after it became clear that schools weren’t a major driver of COVID-19’s spread.
It’s also worth noting how the rationale for lockdowns evolved continuously throughout 2020. At first, they were a temporary measure to avoid overwhelming our hospitals. As the pandemic stretched on, the purpose of these stay-at-home orders — and any sense of when they might be lifted — grew increasingly unclear.
Governments in New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles have capitalized on the crisis to require proof of COVID-19 vaccination as a condition for entering restaurants, bars and gyms.
Getting vaccinated may be a good idea. But that doesn’t mean governments have the right to compel such behavior — especially given that they’re outsourcing the enforcement of their orders, and the associated costs, to private businesses.
The true costs of our initial response to COVID may not be fully understood for years. But they include a historic slowdown in economic growth, record-high unemployment, as well as troubling increases in depression and substance use across the country.
Yet even today, nothing short of the complete eradication of COVID-19 seems to be acceptable policy for some progressives and mandarins within the public health establishment.
But zero COVID is a fantasy. The virus will almost certainly be with us forever, just like the common cold and influenza are. We will need to adapt.
Whatever may come of the omicron variant, avoiding another round of lockdowns needs to be a top priority for policymakers. But more than that, the purpose of the nation’s pandemic strategy must be to return our everyday lives to something resembling its pre-COVID state as quickly as possible.
And for the first time, that aim seems to be within our grasp — especially with the emergence of Pfizer’s new COVID-19 pill, Paxlovid. The therapy has proven extraordinarily effective in clinical trials at reducing the risk of hospitalization and death if given to people within days of the onset of COVID-19 symptoms.
Yet as with so many technologies, these life-changing products may take far too long to reach patients. And that’s because of an exceedingly slow Food and Drug Administration approval process.
Pfizer applied for Emergency Use Authorization for Paxlovid over two weeks ago. The FDA still hasn’t released a timeline for when it might make a decision. According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 800 Americans are dying of COVID-19 every day, on average.
What’s needed are reforms that accelerate the development and release of new COVID-19 therapies, tests, and vaccines. These are the sorts of policies that can bring this pandemic to an end quickly and safely.
Until they come to pass, our nation will remain vulnerable to public officials who seem resigned, if not content, to prolong this crisis indefinitely.