CHICAGO – With infection rates on the rise, the Omicron variant has ushered in a disorienting new phase of the pandemic, leaving Americans frustrated and dismayed that the basic elements they thought they understood about the coronavirus are changing faster than never.
There were reasons for further concern and reasons for comfort: Omicron is more transmissible than previous variants, yet it appears to cause milder symptoms in many people. Hospitalizations have soared to new highs in some states, but “incidental patients,” people who test positive for Covid-19 after being admitted for another reason, account for nearly half of their cases in some hospitals.
Public health officials, in response to the new variant, have halved the recommended isolation period for people with positive tests from 10 to five days, while suggesting that people upgrade their cloth masks to medical grade. when it is possible.
“Omicron has quickly become something that is just different,” said Dr. Allison Arwady, Chicago’s top health official.
Amid shifting federal public health guidelines and the new and different twist, President Biden’s own former transition team has called on the president to adopt an entirely new national pandemic strategy geared toward the “new normal” of living with the virus indefinitely, not to eliminate it. out of.
And Americans, faced with these new facts, warnings and warnings, have responded with a mixture of confusion, vigilance and indifference. Left primarily to navigate everything on their own, they have to navigate a number of uncertain risks: traveling by bus? Visit friends? eat inside? – hour by hour.
Many people wonder if they should leave their children at home and not go to school or cancel vacations and dinners out. They are looking for home antigen testing or appointments for sophisticated PCR testing and are ditching cloth masks in favor of KN95s and N95s. In some cities, they have returned to wearing masks even outside, and are ordering grocery deliveries or stocking up on supplies to avoid travel for the next few days.
Others have ignored the increasing cases, focusing on the encouraging fact that some people who are infected with the Omicron variant suffer from little more than a cough and a runny nose, if they show symptoms at all.
While some places have maintained limits, such as restrictions on indoor meals for the unvaccinated, there is little interest in broad closures. A restaurateur in Austin, Texas, said customers were away from home, eager to gather in groups.
“It’s obvious: people have gotten over it,” said Daniel Brooks, 45, who owns two Austin restaurants.
For the most part, American life has not been locked in the latest wave (businesses remain open and schools are largely in-person session), yet this variant has brought significant disruptions to daily life and threatens with bring even more.
Police officers, paramedics and firefighters have been marginalized by the virus, affecting response times in some cities. Across the country, millions of Americans have been sick at home in recent days, sparking debate about testing and safety measures in schools and alarming officials who told the public in direct terms the last week they were getting dangerously low on hospital beds and medical care. workers.
“I suspect almost everyone in the state just had Covid, has it today, or knows someone who has it,” said Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards. “There has never been more of the disease in our state.”
Omicron emerged in southern Africa in late November, and by Christmas it was the dominant variant in the United States, Britain and parts of continental Europe, including Denmark and Portugal, which have some of the highest vaccination rates in the world.
The record number of cases driven by Omicron has produced its own form of chaos globally, bypassing millions of workers with infections, causing a shortage of test kits and forcing many governments to re-impose social restrictions. Spain, Greece, and Italy ordered their citizens to wear masks outdoors again; the Netherlands withdrew to a total blockade.
The variant is now hitting almost every corner of the world. India, bracing for a wave of infections with only half its population vaccinated, has set up makeshift Covid rooms in convention halls. In Argentina recently, the test positivity rate jumped to a staggering 30 percent.
But with signs that the Omicron wave in South Africa is receding, without bringing a huge wave of deaths, many countries have adopted a strategy of living with the virus, opting to keep businesses and schools open rather than risk suffering. economic chaos of more locks.
Health officials in the United States, tired after two years of repeating similar pleas to the public, have tried to emphasize that the Omicron variant does not resemble any other phase of the pandemic.
Daily case reports have roughly quintupled over the past month as Omicron has taken hold. About 650,000 new cases are identified each day, more than double the peak last winter, a number that is certainly an undercount, as it doesn’t include many home antigen test results.
Until now, hospitalizations have increased at a much slower rate than cases. But the number of coronavirus patients continues to grow rapidly, to about 134,000 nationwide, up from 67,000 a month ago. In many cities, doctors say, a smaller proportion of Covid patients are landing in intensive care units or in need of mechanical ventilation, but the large number of patients is sounding alarms.
Deaths, which are a lagging indicator, have not yet risen as significantly. Around 1,500 deaths from Covid-19 are announced every day in the United States. Authorities said it could be weeks before they know whether the Omicron variant will cause another large wave of deaths in the United States, where more than 830,000 people have died from the coronavirus.
Andrew Noymer, a professor of public health at the University of California, Irvine, said the Omicron variant has been “legitimately difficult” for many Americans to understand, as it clearly differs from previous variants.
“Omicron is smoother than Delta, but it is more transmittable,” he said. “It is changing two things at the same time.”
Changing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s advice on isolation and quarantine has also left Americans with questions about the severity of the variant. Many employers, following the guidance of public health officials, have encouraged sick workers to return to their jobs after just five days, even without a test showing they are negative for the virus.
“The confusion is compounding,” said Dr. Gill Wright, city health director in Nashville. “People say, this is supposed to get really bad, but can we get back to work faster?”
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In rural Michigan, people with coronavirus symptoms have come to hospitals in recent weeks repeating the conventional wisdom that once you’ve had Covid, you’re unlikely to catch it again quickly.
“A lot of them say, ‘It can’t be Covid, I had it a few months ago,” said Dr. Mark Hamed, an emergency room physician in Sandusky, Michigan. “Look, they test positive.”
About 62 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated, a number that has barely budged in recent weeks. Even fully vaccinated and boosted people have been infected with the Omicron variant, although health officials say their infections appear less severe than in unvaccinated people.
Across the country, a record number of public employees have been out of work as a result of rising coronavirus infections, leaving officials scrambling to assure residents that if they call 911, someone will show up, though. is a little later than normal.
In Dallas, 204 of the city’s roughly 2,100 fire and rescue department employees were under quarantine Thursday due to positive tests for Covid-19, the most since the start of the pandemic, according to Jason Evans, a spokesman for the department. He said that about a quarter of the department’s total positive tests since March 2020 were from the past two weeks.
Los Angeles city officials said at a news conference Thursday that nearly 300 firefighters were off duty due to the virus, the most the department had seen at any one time. Jeff Cretan, a spokesman for San Francisco Mayor London Breed, said 140 fire department employees and 188 city police department employees had tested positive or were out due to quarantine protocols; so were 110 workers from the city’s transit agency.
Schools and universities faced the uncertainty of conducting classes in person or virtually, sometimes while balancing competing arguments from parents, teachers, and students.
In Chicago last week, the powerful teachers union and Mayor Lori Lightfoot clashed over safety and coronavirus testing in a dispute that has closed schools for several days in the nation’s third-largest school district.
At Rhodes College, a small liberal arts school in Memphis, officials announced over the holiday break that the start of classes in person would be delayed by two weeks, a disappointment to students exasperated with online classes and eager for the guy. of college experience they had. I expected.
“Every semester, it feels like we go back to normal and then it gets revoked one more time,” said John Howell, a senior political economy and philosophy student starting his final semester. “It feels like all the routines are going to be broken and you should expect that.”
Bishop James Dixon, senior pastor of Community of Faith Church in Houston, said he and his fellow church leaders have found themselves struggling to find the right balance as Omicron spreads.
“Nobody has a fixed answer,” he said. “It is trial and error. It is fast paced. And we are supposed to be people of faith and make a decision and take a direction. “
Dixon said the virus had caused a scare among many parishioners because they now know so many people who have contracted it.
“Things are better than they were,” he said, “but at the same time they are worse than they were because the numbers are skyrocketing.”
Bengali shashank contributed reporting from London, Jill cowan of the Angels, J. David Goodman from Houston, Rick Rojas from Nashville and Mitch Smith from Chicago.