It’s the second winter of the nation’s COVID-19 pandemic and once again: We’re boned. The New York Times seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases has spiked to the highest level ever recorded, topping last January’s worst surge numbers with 267,000 new cases. The continuing surge caused by the delta variant is now being itself overwhelmed by new omicron cases, and we’re not yet at whatever peak might happen after the holiday travel season wraps up.
What we don’t yet know is what proportion of these new record numbers are in vaccinated versus unvaccinated Americans. So far we’re seeing that vaccinated Americans can generally cope with an omicron infection without needing hospitalization, and Americans who have gotten a recent booster have a near-zero risk of death. But if these new cases match each of the recent surges, the majority of cases are spreading among those who have not been vaccinated. The outlook for those patients isn’t nearly as rosy.
This new spike also comes as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revises its self-quarantine period for positive but asymptomatic cases from 10 days down to five. In theory that’s because the data says most recently infected people are only contagious for a small period of time. In practice, however, the agency is facing accusations that the move is meant to relieve widespread labor shortages caused by the surge in new cases—shortages that could be eased somewhat if quarantine periods were lower.
The agency is denying those charges, and there’s no evidence they’re true. But the CDC didn’t do itself any favors with a series of cringeworthy statements from its director suggesting that the new guidelines are an attempt to balance what the science says should be done with what skeptical Americans are willing to tolerate.
Call it a marketing problem, a nod to socioeconomic realities, or something else, but the CDC has more generally sought a reputation for scientific straight-talk that other agencies and voices could use before, possibly, coming up with their own social “compromises.” A suggestion that the CDC itself is backing down on what the best scientific approach to quarantining would dictate in order to makes those compromises is only going to further confuse Americans who don’t know what the CDC is thinking or why they’re thinking it.
Medical experts online seem most put out by the CDC’s omission of any testing protocols when advising how long a person should remain isolated after a positive COVID test. Common sense would suggest that you need to stay isolated until you test negative for several days in a row. The CDC guidelines of “five days if you’re asymptomatic, or five days after your last symptoms disappear” instead relies on a more nebulous self-diagnosis of what your “symptoms” are.
The new record number of COVID-19 cases in America should be infuriating, because it is entirely unnecessary. We now have very good information about how the virus spreads, information that we did not have in the early days. We know it’s airborne, and we know which sorts of masks are able to block the virus. We know the types of activities that are most likely to cause viral spread: Indoors is much, much worse than outdoors, and indoor exercise, singing, or other activity that causes deeper breathing spreads the virus more readily than activities such as shopping or waiting in line. We now have multiple vaccines effective against the virus—and its current variants—and know what percentage of the population needs to be vaccinated to reach a “herd immunity” that will shrink transmission rates down to nearly zero.
We know all of this, but are going into the winter with more cases than we’ve ever had before because not taking steps to bring the pandemic to a close is now the central culture war of conservatism, with Republican governors, state lawmakers, national leaders, party officials, and party-allied news outlets all working to push vaccine skepticism, resist public masking, promote utterly fraudulent supposed “cures,” and stoke public fury at the medical experts tasked with keeping the nation safe. None of it had to happen. All of it happened because the most self-centered, egotistical, ignorant, cowardly, and sociopathic Americans were easily convinced that their “freedom” to endanger others was of far more import than their neighbors’ “freedom” to not die. It is gutless, pompous cowardice, and we still do not show even half of the contempt towards these Americans as we properly ought to.