President Biden and other top Democrats mingle among a largely unmasked crowd at the Congressional Picnic at the White House on Tuesday. (Getty Images photo by Chip Somodevilla)
By Myah Ward and Joanne Kenen
Midway through Year 3, the denial is pervasive. And it’s no longer coming solely from science-denying, Anthony Fauci-detesting Trump voters. It’s all over the place, including college-educated blue-staters who are weary of the pandemic and have convinced themselves that just because they or their family or their brother-in-law’s colleague didn’t get really sick from Covid, no one will get really sick from Covid.
Yet the BA.5 variant, which looks to be the most adept yet at evading vaccine protection and antibodies from prior infections, is spreading voraciously. “The worst version of the virus” to date, is how Scripps Research virus expert Eric Topol summed it up.
Deaths are mercifully steady, usually running about 300 to 350 a day — though right now it’s above 400, and even the lower numbers are well over the average U.S. daily death toll of breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. Hospitalizations are creeping up. Positivity rates are climbing. The CDC says that most U.S. wastewater surveillance sites show moderate to high viral levels, with 40 percent hitting the highest level since Omicron snuck up on us last Thanksgiving.
Yet, in a New York Times poll last week of registered voters, less than 1 percent placed the pandemic as their top priority.
“People are tired of the pandemic,” University of Minnesota epidemiologist Michael Osterholm said. “So the way of dealing with it is: ‘We’re done.’”
That leaves us feeling like skunks at the garden party — that is, if we had enough friends who didn’t have Covid-19 right now to even have a garden party.
“I already had it,” people tell us. (“YOU CAN GET IT AGAIN — MAYBE IN A MONTH. AND IT MIGHT BE EVEN WORSE,” we want to scream.)
“I’m young and healthy,” they declare. (“BUT THE PERSON STANDING NEXT TO YOUR UNMASKED FACE AT THE GROCERY STORY OR ON THE BUS MAY NOT BE.”)
And when we’re being virus-splained by someone with that particular blend of arrogance and ignorance, we’ve been known to casually drop into conversation, “WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THAT VETERANS’ HEALTH DATA SUGGESTING ELEVATED RISK OF HEART ATTACK AND STROKE AND DIABETES FOR A YEAR AFTER COVID?”
Don’t get us wrong. We’re tired of the pandemic too! And we aren’t saying that things aren’t better. Of course they are, in just about every way we can think of. We go more places and do more things than we did a year ago. We worry less about our older or sicker relatives. We are grateful for the drugs that work, for the shots keeping most of us alive — and the new vaccines in development that might reduce these staggering waves of breakthroughs.
But there’s still plenty of virus to see, hear and speak of. To preserve the progress we’ve made, to keep recovering, we need to dial up our vigilance at certain times. Now is one of those times.
Osterholm said BA.5 is causing a lot more “moderate” disease as opposed to sniffles, sore throats and minor illness. More people are sick — in bed, sick — for two to three weeks. “We don’t see that often with influenza,” he said. “Wherever BA.5 pops up, you can expect to see a major increase in moderately ill people who are going to be off of work, not dealing with life and such for days.”
West Virginia public health commissioner Ayne Amjad said health professionals know a surge when they see one — and they are seeing one right now. But in her outreach to West Virginians, she chooses words with care: “They are tired of hearing about ‘surges.’ It just makes them think about lockdowns and mask mandates.”
The Biden administration, still juggling its messages of normalcy and vigilance, is watching the BA.5 numbers climb. Health officials are considering recommending a second booster for everyone — not just older people and the immune-compromised. That’s going to require some high-octane messaging to penetrate the virus malaise, given that only one-third of those eligible have gotten their first booster and a third haven’t even gotten the first series of shots. Boosters don’t require people to see or hear the virus — just to roll up their sleeves.