Editorial: Adapting to the virus

·3 min read

Just as the start of the new year provides individuals an opportunity for a fresh start, the omicron variant of COVID-19 should encourage public and health officials to rethink how our nation and our communities battle this disease from now on.

The hope for eradicating COVID is gone. We must find ways to manage the disease, to protect the vulnerable and to live with the virus in the safest, most workable way possible.

That should begin at the top. One year ago, President Joe Biden rolled out a comprehensive national strategy for battling the virus. It emphasized vaccinations, testing and other mitigation strategies, use of the Defense Production Act, and efforts to open schools and businesses.

That strategy worked — until it didn’t.

COVID variants — first delta, then omicron — opened new fronts in the war on this virus. A stubborn reluctance to get the vaccine served as fuel for that fire. And political differences proved too polarizing for some communities to overcome.

There are plenty of things the federal government should have done better, especially when it comes to testing. It is also inexcusable that Americans must translate instructions from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control about proper testing and quarantine procedures, and Biden’s December announcement that his administration would provide rapid tests to Americans free of charge came months too late.

The strain of those failures is evident in Hampton Roads.

On Friday, Sentara Healthcare announced it would postpone “all hospital-based non-emergent surgeries, procedures and diagnostic testing” in order to handle the growing influx of patients infected with omicron. A Chesapeake testing event scheduled for Monday was postponed for lack of staff (again, thanks to COVID infections).

It’s not just affecting health care. Schools are returning to virtual learning because teachers or critical support staff — bus drivers, in particular — are infected. Government agencies are shutting their doors temporarily; Virginia Beach Department of Human Services was closed on Monday. More will follow.

Some have called this the “D.I.Y. wave” of COVID because Americans have been left to determine for themselves when to get tested (and how to find a test), when to quarantine (and for how long), when to get a booster (and where), when to wear a mask (and where it’s required), and so on.

Two years into the global pandemic, you might think that we’d be better at this. You’d hope that the self-proclaimed “greatest country in the world” could come together to battle a virus that’s claimed more than 835,000 American lives.

We should be capable of providing clear, straightforward guidance so Americans know what to do when faced with another wave of infections, at providing the tools so people can make smart decisions to limit the spread of disease, and at demonstrating the collective resolve needed to help health care workers and health systems endure yet another wave of illness and death.

The virus has evolved but we have not evolved with it.

At this point, we should be worried about hospitalizations and deaths rather than case numbers, to better focus our concern on the problem.

We should be making decisions about schools and businesses based on factors such as community infection and vaccination rates, to make every effort to keep them open and operational.

We should be focusing efforts on vaccination, testing and mitigation measures (such as masks) but also improving ventilation and rethinking how we use shared public spaces.

All efforts should be made to protect the vulnerable, but our public policies will have to increase our capacity for risk.

We need better communication from elected officials — Biden, yes, but also Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin as he prepares to take office and those in local positions — as well as leaders in public health.

And we will need more from individuals, who shouldn’t need government to tell them to wear a mask indoors, but who do it because it protects themselves and others.

Thoughtful adaptation is our only way forward. All have a role to play.

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