Omicron, the newly designated coronavirus variant, has caused no confirmed cases in the United States but no shortage of anxiety, and not just at the prospect of exhausting the Greek alphabet. The stock market shuddered, official warnings proliferated and President Joe Biden restricted travel to the United States from southern Africa, where the variant was identified and publicized.
While omicron should remind us of the continuing danger to public health, we should be reassured that throughout the rise and fall of four previous variants, the alpha and omega of effective pandemic policies have hardly changed.
The benefits of and justification for Biden’s travel ban are debatable at best, especially in light of this country’s status as a global viral incubator and the revelation that omicron was spreading in Europe before South African scientists did the world the favor of making it known. The variant has been discovered in Canada and may well be spreading undiscovered here, and the history of this and other pandemics is already riddled with enough counterproductive xenophobia.
But the president was right in another respect: Omicron “is a cause for concern — not a cause for panic.”
The concern is that as with the dominant delta variant, omicron’s proliferation shows that it is more effective at spreading through a population than competing forms of the virus. Omicron’s mutations also raise questions about its capacity to evade current vaccines.
Definitive data on the variant’s transmissibility and the vaccines’ efficacy against it, however, doesn’t yet exist. Whether omicron is more or less likely to seriously sicken or kill those it infects is a subject of still more uncertainty.
What we do know is that the vaccines are highly effective, particularly at preventing serious illness and death, against every previous variant, as are such cruder instruments as masks and distancing. For all the breathless consternation associated with the rise of the delta variant months ago, researchers found “only modest differences in vaccine effectiveness” against delta compared with the first dominant variant, alpha. One study found that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine prevented hospitalization in 96% of cases of infection with delta. Unvaccinated Californians are about seven times more likely to contract the virus, 13 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID and 16 times more likely to die of the disease.
Vaccination remains our best defense against the virus not only as individuals but also as a society. The more the virus is allowed to spread among the unvaccinated in California and across the country and globe, the more it will evolve into new variants that challenge the vaccines and evade every conceivable travel restriction.
Gov. Gavin Newsom was therefore right to advise Californians on Twitter Saturday that “the best way we know to protect yourself is to get vaccinated and get your booster.” But several local jurisdictions are doing far more than just tweeting at their constituents. Tuesday, for example, marked the deadline for staff and some students of the Sacramento City Unified School District to submit proof of at least one vaccine dose under a policy that is substantially tougher than Newsom’s statewide requirements for students and teachers. Students 12 and older who aren’t in compliance by the end of January face a return to remote learning.
If they really want to protect the state against this and subsequent variants, school, city, county and state officials should be tightening and expediting existing vaccine mandates and imposing new ones. Such mandates have repeatedly shown their capacity to overcome the hesitation of all but the most committed adherents of anti-vaccine misinformation. Our leaders’ failure to consistently require that and other effective precautions against the virus has cost far more lives than any innovation of the virus itself.