The omicron variant is already circulating in the United States. That doesn’t mean it’s time to panic.
On Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced it identified a person in California infected with the omicron variant of the coronavirus. Scientists first discovered this variant last month in South Africa. It appears to be a much more transmissible version of the disease. In one South African province, the test positivity rate rose from less than 1 percent to 16 percent in a month.
This variant has thrown the world into upheaval. President Joe Biden and other world leaders issued travel bans. The stock market is swinging wildly. Biden will require all international travelers to produce a negative test within one day of their flight. Ominously, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said “nothing is off the table” when it comes to limiting the spread of omicron.
You can expect these mitigation measures to be as effective as they have been for the past 21 months. Which is to say — not effective at all. There is a special irony to Biden banning travel from African countries after implying that Donald Trump’s original coronavirus-inspired travel ban was xenophobic. Also, one type of international visitor doesn’t have to worry about producing a negative coronavirus test — illegal immigrants. The Biden administration has released many of them into the country.
Here’s what almost two years of dealing with the pandemic should have made clear to Biden and other political leaders. The government can’t stop the coronavirus. It can’t even figure out what causes outbreaks, although the weather seems to play a part. Its mitigation measures, such as lockdowns, mask mandates, eviction moratoriums and travel bans, haven’t worked. Notice how the national mainstream media is less interested in states with high case numbers now that blue states, not Florida, are topping the charts.
The good news is that while government can’t stop the coronavirus from spreading, you can dramatically lower your personal risk. The vaccines have been highly effective at preventing hospitalizations and death. Writing in JAMA, Michael Klompas found unvaccinated adults were around 18 times more likely to be hospitalized than the vaccinated, after adjusting for age.
So how effective are the vaccines against the omicron variant? If you just looked at Biden’s panicked actions, you’d think the country and the vaccinated were back at square one.
Not hardly. The preliminary data is preliminary, but encouraging. On Sunday, the World Health Organization said, “Current vaccines remain effective against severe disease and death.” National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins is optimistic, too, especially given that the vaccines have worked against other variants.
Even if they don’t hold, pharmaceutical companies say they can develop vaccines specifically targeted at omicron. Initial shipments could go out within 100 days.
To review: A highly contagious new variant has appeared. Anyone five and above who wants a vaccine can get one. So far, the coronavirus has posed very little risk to children. The best evidence suggests the vaccines will be highly effective at preventing hospitalization and death from the new variant.
If what’s happening makes you want to take extra precautions, go for it. But it’s not sufficient grounds for Biden and other politicians, such as Gov. Steve Sisolak, to impose new restrictions.