As Americans endure their second pandemic winter, for many the holidays suddenly have an eerie familiar feeling of uncertainty and doom. In some places, mask mandates have been reset. There are long lines to test in others. Boostershot appointments fill up quickly. Social media feels overwhelmed with friends and loved ones announcing positive diagnoses. The number of cases is rising nationwide. Many hospitals have been flooded. The US is begging for yet another deadly wave of COVID infections — the fifth or sixth, depending on where you live.
“It’s just another wave. Every extra wave is too much,” said virologist Angela Rasmussen, who prefers not to keep count. “I’m tired of the waves! I want to leave this beach!”
Like millions of Americans, Rasmussen and her husband are now re-evaluating their Christmas plans. At this stage, she still feels comfortable with the family gathering she hosted with other vaccinated loved ones who got their booster shots, but already thinks she’ll skip drinks with friends if she visits her hometown for the holidays. .
“I think I’m just exhausted at the moment. Probably most people are,’ she said. “Every time this happens, it’s like Oh no, you got too hopeful there. Then something else happens. First Delta, now Omicron. It feels like we are going through the same cycle.”
“What’s most frustrating,” she said, “is that we don’t seem to learn from it.”
New cases and hospital admissions are rising about 5% to 7% week over week, the CDC said in a briefing on Wednesday. About 1,100 Americans still die every day. More than 90% of the country is considered a high-transmission area, and with cases of the highly contagious Omicron variant already in 36 states, the forecast is only expected to worsen. The current wave action in most of the country is still largely driven by the Delta variant.
The CDC said it predicts COVID cases will have exploded further as Americans gather for the holidays. It estimates that as many as 1.3 million new infections will be reported in the week ending December 25 – a potential spike of 55% from the previous week. Watch Exploding Case Numbers in the UK as a potential model, January could be even more terrible.
The fact that these grim predictions came in the same week as the US passed both 50 million infections and 800,000 deaths only seems to add to the sudden sense of mounting fear.
Faced with this expected avalanche of even more deaths, burnt-out health workers aren’t sure how they’ll cope. “Honestly, I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know how to go on,” Kansas doctor Alix Oreck said through tears. “We don’t have the confidence we initially had. We know the chances are so slim that once people come to us, they’re going to make it.”
In the past month, things had already gotten significantly worse at her small 45-bed hospital in Parsons, a rural town in the southeastern state, where Oreck said it feels like people are pretending the pandemic is over. She recently established an ethics and allocation committee to make decisions about prioritizing patient care. They have no beds, IV poles and other basic necessities. There is only one fan left. These aren’t the kinds of decisions Oreck was going to make medicine.
‘We are exhausted. We try so hard. We try to be generous in spirit, even if we are beaten from all sides,” Oreck said. “But I’ve never seen healthcare workers cry like that. Everyone is in so much pain.”
A number of factors have converged at an unfortunate time in the pandemic. Cold weather has once again forced much of the US inside, and people are gathering for the holidays — far too many of them unvaccinated. Now the Omicron variant has arrived on top of the already circulating Delta variant, which still accounts for 96% of registered US cases. But Omicron appears to be more contagious, even among vaccinated people. Even office parties at companies with strict vaccine mandates were followed by a spate of infections, including at BuzzFeed’s own in New York City. Omicron will probably be the dominant variant nationwide in early January.
“It’s spreading like wildfire, even among vaccinated people,” Rasmussen said. “One thing is very clear: we are going to have a huge wave of Omicron cases. What will determine how bad it will be is how severe the disease will be and whether it will cause that in vaccinated people.”
Some preliminary studies suggest that Omicron cases are more likely to be milder, but even if that’s true — a big if, as experts agree much more data is needed — its effect on hospitals could be easily counteracted, depending on the situation. dissemination thereof. “If twice as many people get Omicron than Delta, but only half the people get seriously ill, that’s still the same number of people who get seriously ill as a Delta wave,” Rasmussen said.
But not everything is without hope. The world now looks very different from last year at this point, when COVID vaccines started rolling out of factories and into the arms of the first Americans. Scientists have developed new tests, treatments and life-saving vaccines. “It’s important to remember that we have a lot more resources to fight this virus than we did a year ago,” CDC director Rochelle Walensky told reporters on Wednesday.
Gerardo Chowell, a math epidemiologist at Georgia State University health school, said people in his Atlanta community aren’t putting off travel plans or vacation gatherings. They are just sensible. “People are ready to get on with their lives while managing the risks of COVID-19,” he said. “I feel calm and optimistic. We have learned so much about this new enemy over the past two years and have reliable tools to help mitigate COVID-19 risk.”
Experts say there’s one clear step Americans can take to protect themselves — and society in general — during this next wave.
“The message remains clear: If you’re not vaccinated, get vaccinated,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told reporters on Wednesday. “And especially in the arena of Omicron, when you’re fully vaccinated, you get a booster shot.”
Fauci pointed to emerging studies showing that vaccinations still provide significant protection against serious diseases caused by Omicron. Booster shots offer even more. “Our booster vaccine schedules work against Omicron,” Fauci said. “At this point, there is no need for a variant-specific booster.”
So how should Americans navigate and make decisions about holiday festivities in the coming weeks?
Ashish K. Jha, Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, told the Today show on Thursday that, unlike last year, there are now ways to get together safely with loved ones.
“If everyone is vaccinated and gets a boost, I think it’s pretty safe for people to get together,” he said. “But if there are people at high risk – the elderly, immunocompromised – I would definitely add a test layer to that. Everyone do a quick quick test before they get together. That makes it a lot safer.”
“If you confuse vaccinated and unvaccinated people, it naturally increases the risk,” Jha added. “That’s where testing becomes essential.”
Virologist Rasmussen repeated this warning.
“Don’t delay Christmas, but maybe don’t invite more than 50 people,” she said. “Don’t go to a party where your anti-vax relatives hang out. Be selective about who you are with. Don’t be afraid to ask for their status. Use quick tests. Wear masks in public places.”
After the past two years, it’s understandable to want to be with loved ones and be a little bit normal, Rasmussen said.
But if ever there was a time to think about others, it is now.
“It’s the holiday season. We should think about our communities, our families and those who may be more vulnerable,” she said. “Please think of them before you decide your Omicron isn’t going to ruin your Christmas.”