Disruption, dismay, dissent: Americans grapple with omicron’s rise

There were
reasons for heightened concern and reasons for consolation: 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 — make up close to half of their cases in some

health officials, in response to the new variant, have halved the recommended
isolation period for people with positive tests to five days from 10 days,
while also suggesting people upgrade their masks from cloth to medical-grade
when possible.

“Omicron has
turned, quickly, into something that is just different,” said Dr. Allison
Arwady, Chicago’s top health official.

shifting federal public health guidance and the new and distinct variant,
President Joe Biden’s own former transition team has called on the president to
adopt an entirely new domestic pandemic strategy geared to the “new normal” of
living with the virus indefinitely, not to wiping it out.

Americans, confronted with these new sets of facts, warnings and advisories,
have responded with a mix of confusion, vigilance and indifference. Left mainly
to navigate it all on their own, they must sort through an array of uncertain
risks — ride a bus? visit friends? eat inside? — hour by hour.

Many people
wonder whether they should keep their children home from school or cancel
vacations and dinners out. They scramble for at-home antigen tests or
appointments for sophisticated PCR tests and are discarding 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 trips for the days ahead.

Others have
shrugged off the rising cases, focusing on the encouraging fact that some
people who are infected with the omicron variant suffer little more than a
cough and runny nose — if they show symptoms at all.

While some
places have maintained limits like restrictions on indoor dining for the
unvaccinated, there is little appetite for broad shutdowns. A restaurateur in
Austin, Texas, said that customers were out and about, eager to gather in

obvious: People are over it,” said Daniel Brooks, 45, who owns two restaurants
in Austin.

For the most
part, American life has not locked down in the latest wave — businesses remain
open, and schools are largely in session in person — yet this variant has
brought significant disruptions to daily life and threatens to bring still

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officers, paramedics and firefighters have been sidelined with the virus,
affecting response times in some cities. Across the country, millions of
Americans have been sick at home in recent days, igniting debates over testing
and safety measures in schools and alarming officials who told the public in
blunt terms this past week that they were running dangerously low on hospital
beds and health care workers.

“I suspect
just about everybody in the state now either has just had COVID, has it today
or knows somebody who does,” Gov John Bel Edwards of Louisiana said. “There has
never been more of the disease in our state.”

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.

record-high caseloads fueled by omicron have produced their own form of chaos
globally, sidelining millions of workers with infections, prompting shortages
of test kits and forcing many governments to reimpose social restrictions.
Spain, Greece and Italy ordered their citizens to return to wearing masks
outdoors; the Netherlands retreated into full lockdown.

The variant
is now battering nearly every corner of the world. India, bracing for a tidal
wave of infections with only half its population vaccinated, has set up
makeshift COVID wards in convention halls. In Argentina recently, the test
positivity rate rose to a staggering 30%.

But with
signs that the wave of omicron in South Africa is receding, without bringing a
huge new surge of deaths, many countries have moved to a strategy of living with
the virus, opting to keep businesses and schools open rather than risk the
economic havoc of more lockdowns.

officials in the United States, weary from two years of repeating similar pleas
to the public, have tried to emphasize that the omicron variant is like no
other phase of the pandemic.

Daily case
reports have roughly quintupled over the last month as omicron has taken hold.
About 650,000 new cases are being identified each day, more than twice as many
as at last winter’s peak — a number that is certainly an undercount, since it
does not include many results from at-home antigen tests.

So far,
hospitalizations have increased at a much slower pace than cases. But the
number of coronavirus patients is still growing rapidly, to about 134,000 nationwide,
up from about 67,000 a month ago. In many cities, doctors say, a smaller
proportion of COVID patients are landing in intensive care units or requiring
mechanical ventilation, but the sheer number of patients is raising alarms.

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which are a lagging indicator, have not yet increased as significantly. About
1,500 deaths from COVID-19 are being announced every day in the United States.
It could be weeks, officials said, before they will know whether the omicron
variant will result in another large wave of deaths in the United States, where
more than 830,000 people have died from the coronavirus.

Noymer, a public health professor at the University of California, Irvine, said
that the omicron variant has been “legitimately complicated” for many Americans
to comprehend, since it clearly differs from previous variants.

“Omicron is
milder than delta, but it’s more transmissible,” he said. “It’s changing two
things at once.”

advice on isolation and quarantines from the Centres for Disease Control and
Prevention has also left Americans with questions about the seriousness of the
variant. Many employers, acting on guidance from public health officials, have
encouraged sick workers to return to their jobs after only five days, even without
a test showing that they are negative for the virus.

“The confusion
is compounded,” said Dr Gill Wright, city health director in Nashville,
Tennessee. “People are saying, this is supposed to get really bad, but we can
go back to work quicker?”

In rural
Michigan, people with coronavirus symptoms have arrived at hospitals in recent
weeks repeating the conventional wisdom that once you have had COVID, you are
unlikely to contract it again quickly.

“A lot of
them say, ‘It can’t be COVID; I just had it a few months ago,” said Dr. Mark
Hamed, an emergency room physician in Sandusky, Michigan. “Lo and behold, they
test positive.”

Roughly 62
percent of Americans are fully vaccinated, a number that has barely budged in
recent weeks. Even fully vaccinated and boosted individuals have become
infected with the omicron variant, though health officials say that their
infections appear less severe than in the unvaccinated.

Across the
country, record numbers of public employees have been off the job as a result
of surging coronavirus infections, leaving officials scrambling to reassure
residents that if they call 911, someone will show up — if a little later than

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In Dallas,
204 of the roughly 2,100 employees of the city’s fire and rescue department
were in quarantine Thursday because of positive COVID-19 tests — the most since
the beginning of the pandemic, according to Jason Evans, the department’s spokesman.
He said that approximately one-quarter of the department’s total positive tests
since March 2020 were from the last two weeks.

Los Angeles
city officials said at a news conference Thursday that almost 300 firefighters
were off duty because of the virus, the most the department had seen at any one
time. Jeff Cretan, a spokesman for Mayor London Breed of San Francisco, said
that 140 employees of the fire department and 188 employees of the city police
department had tested positive or were out because of quarantine protocols; so
were 110 workers at the city’s transit agency.

Schools and
colleges were facing the uncertainty of whether to conduct 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
coronavirus safety and 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, Tennessee, officials announced
over the holiday break that the start of in-person classes was being delayed
two weeks — a disappointment for students exasperated with online classes and
eager for the kind of college experience they had hoped for.

semester, it feels like we’re almost back to normal, and then it gets revoked
one more time,” said John Howell, a senior political economy and philosophy
major starting his final semester. “It feels like every routine is going to be
broken, and you should just expect that.”

Bishop James
Dixon, senior pastor at the Community of Faith Church in Houston, said that he
and his fellow church leaders have found themselves struggling to strike the
right balance as omicron spreads.

“No one has
a set answer,” he said. “It’s trial and error. It’s trepidatious. And we’re
supposed to be people of faith and make a decision and take a direction.”

Dixon said
the virus had caused a scare among many congregants because they know so many people
now who have gotten it.

“Things are
better than they were,” he said, “but simultaneously they’re worse than they
were because numbers are soaring.”

© 2022 The
New York Times Company

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