Omicron variant: What's next for the U.S.?

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WASHINGTON — On Thursday, millions of Americans gathered for what was, for many, their first normal Thanksgiving since 2019. On Friday, the nation groggily awoke to news that a new coronavirus variant, tagged as B.1.1.529 and named Omicron, had been detected in South Africa. “This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning,” the World Health Organization said in a statement.

President Biden on Sunday returned to Washington from Nantucket to meet with his pandemic response team, in a reflection of how serious the situation could be. He will deliver a White House address on the new variant Monday afternoon.

It’s not exactly how anyone wanted to begin the holiday season, but the coronavirus pandemic has routinely confounded expectations and predictions, and the advent of the Omicron variant seems to be in keeping with that trend.

Perhaps most frustrating is how little is known about the variant, giving both public health officials and elected leaders little visibility into how to proceed, especially as millions prepare to gather and travel for Hanukkah, Christmas and other celebrations. In much of the country facing cold winter weather, they will do so indoors, where the coronavirus spreads much easier than it does in the open. Many people will crowd into airports and train stations to reach their destination.

A man stands next to a newspaper headline.
An attendant at a gas station in Pretoria, South Africa, stands next to a newspaper headline on Saturday. (Denis Farrell/AP)

One of the many uncertainties is how threatening Omicron even is. There is the possibility that Omicron is a “scariant” that proves less intimidating in the final analysis than it did in the initial one.

The hope is not unfounded: A South African doctor who was one of the first to discover the variant described the symptoms she encountered as “mild.” Only most of her patients were young people, a group that would be expected to have milder symptoms, or none at all.

“Even if Omicron can do a better job at evading vaccine (and infection) derived immunity — which is likely — this will not be a reset back to March 2020,” Harvard epidemiologist Michael Mina wrote on Twitter. “Infections have been rampant and [people] have been vaccinated. Both of these will help prevent disease should Omicron take off.”

Another uncertainty is whether the new variant is already here. “No cases of this variant have been identified in the U.S. to date,” said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a statement on Friday. But that could be because genomic sequencing of coronavirus strains has never been a priority in the United States, meaning that the Omicron variant may be spreading in parts of the country. Even if it isn’t, most epidemiologists agree that it is only a matter of time before it shows up in the United States.

Biden has restricted travel to the United States from eight countries in southern Africa, but given how quickly the virus spreads — suspected or confirmed cases of Omicron are already in Europe, Asia and Australia — such bans are widely seen as doing little more than putting off the variant’s inevitable landfall.

People in line at an airport.
Travelers at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam wait for coronavirus test appointments on Saturday. (Eva Plevier/Reuters)

“No way that’s gonna happen,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said Sunday in an ABC interview of the prospect that travel restrictions could stop the virus at America’s shores. “But what you can do is you can delay it enough to get us better prepared.”

Nobody wants to be back in March 2020, to be sure, when the coronavirus brought the whole world to a halt. But for many, going back to March of this year wouldn’t be all that welcome, either. After all, some 200 million Americans have been vaccinated since then. Could the new variant undo that progress within a matter of weeks?

The new variant arrives at a time of acute exhaustion with pandemic restrictions but also amid continued fears of the virus itself. And for all the political furor surrounding the pandemic, polls have shown that a majority Americans understand the risk of contracting COVID-19 and are willing to take measures — like get vaccinated — to forfend that risk. Nearly 60 percent of all people in the United States are vaccinated, with inoculation rates in parts of the country much higher than that.

So what now? The answer, for now, is to wait for scientists to decode Omicron and to hope that the combination of vaccinations, therapeutics and other measures (masking, for example) will not erode the progress of the last year.

“We just do not know,” Brown University economist and pandemic observer Emily Oster wrote in her newsletter over the weekend about what Omicron could portend. “There is nothing different to do right now based on its existence,” she added, pleading with people not to worry.

“I am generally concerned about school closures,” Oster told Yahoo News. “Anything which makes people more anxious or raises case rates is likely to make this more likely. Having said that, I would hope we learned from the last waves that school closures do not seem to impact COVID rates and that the costs are very large.”

Rows of desks in an empty classroom.
A classroom in Milton-Union Exempted Village School District in Ohio sits empty ahead of the statewide school closures in March 2020. (Kyle Grillot/Reuters)

Some aren’t willing to wait. Anthony Leonardi, an immunologist, wrote to his local school board on Saturday asking for remote learning to be reinstated, despite research by Oster and others showing how devastating school via Zoom proved to be intellectually and emotionally.

Asked about the possibility of reinstating remote learning, influential teachers’ union leader Randi Weingarten was noncommittal. “I hope not,” she wrote in a Sunday text message to Yahoo News.

What other measures could return remains unclear, with neither the CDC nor the White House responding to Yahoo News’ questions about potential lockdowns and school closures. Last week, White House officials said that there would be no new lockdowns, but they made that vow before having been made aware of the existence of the Omicron variant. Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, told ABC on Sunday that it was “too early to say” whether the new variant could prompt restrictions or mandates.

Thus far, though, the only certain thing about the Omicron variant is that it is mired in uncertainty: about whether it transmits easier than previous variants; whether it makes people sicker; whether it evades vaccine-generated antibodies or those created by a previous bout with COVID-19. These questions are battling out on social media and cable news, which has only deepened the sense of confusion.

Students painting signs.
Students in Mumbai, India, paint signs following news of the Omicron variant. (Niharika Kulkarni/Reuters)

Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, said on CNN that there is “no data so far” to justify worries about the new variant’s virulence or how sick it makes people. Still, such worries abound, especially since the variant appears to have a high number of mutations on the spike protein that protrudes from the surface of the pathogen that gives the coronavirus its distinctive shape.

The coronavirus vaccine is already engineered to cover different epitopes, or versions, of the coronavirus, and Pfizer and Moderna both said they could adapt their vaccines to blunt Omicron’s effects. Would that mean that the definition of a fully vaccinated person would change to include a fourth shot specifically targeting Omicron?

Those questions won’t be answered for weeks. The White House readout of Biden’s meeting with his pandemic team said that Fauci “informed the President that while it will take approximately two more weeks to have more definitive information on the transmissibility, severity, and other characteristics of the variant, he continues to believe that existing vaccines are likely to provide a degree of protection against severe cases of COVID.”

Fauci and Collins fanned out across cable news on Sunday making the case that vaccination remains the best defense against any new coronavirus variant. “If you’re not vaccinated, get vaccinated. If you’re fully vaccinated, get boosted,” Fauci said on “Meet the Press.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Dr. Anthony Fauci on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday to discuss the Omicron variant. (via NBC Video)

But the push to vaccinate adults has stalled, in part because the very issue of inoculation has become a culture war over individual liberty, social responsibility and science itself. Republican governors like Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas have led the fight against Biden’s workplace vaccination mandate, even though their states saw thousands of people die over the summer — the overwhelming majority of them unvaccinated — during the Delta wave.

Now a new wave could be building, further polarizing a nation already profoundly polarized. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul issued a state of emergency to prepare against the new variant. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan prepared to distribute 500,000 free rapid tests, which epidemiologists like Mina of Harvard have long argued remain an underused weapon against the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, some conservatives insisted that Omicron should be called “the Xi variant,” in reference to China’s leader Xi Jinping, whom they hold responsible for starting the pandemic. (The WHO has been using the Greek alphabet to name coronavirus variants but skipped two letters, Nu and Xi, before arriving at Omicron.)

Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Texas, the former White House physician who recently joined Congress, escalated the partisan attacks even further to baselessly connect Omicron concerns to the upcoming elections. “Here comes the MEV — the Midterm Election Variant! They NEED a reason to push unsolicited nationwide mail-in ballots. Democrats will do anything to CHEAT during an election,” Jackson wrote on Twitter.

Dr. Ronny Jackson.
Former White House physician Dr. Ronny Jackson speaks to reporters in 2018. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

There is also genuine exhaustion with the pandemic: working from home, wearing masks, dealing with supply chain woes, scanning QR codes at restaurants. Although cases had been rising in recent weeks, it seemed like the end of the pandemic was in sight — at least in areas where vaccines are commonplace. Now, the horizon appears to be receding once again, potentially leaving people in isolation as the winter cold and darkness set in.

“I don’t think the economy, ... the psyche of the American people can take more shutdown holidays,” libertarian writer Robby Soave said on Fox News on Sunday.

That observation appears to hold true for other nations too, including some with cultures of public deference to authority; massive protests in Austria last week gave elected officials the world over a preview of what they could expect. And those protests were triggered by Delta-fueled shutdowns. It is impossible to say just what Omicron will bring.

Thus far, the most onerous measures from 2020 do not appear to be necessary — but none are out of the question until scientists gain a better understanding of how potent Omicron truly is.

“You want to be prepared,” Fauci said Sunday, “to do anything and everything.”