If last Friday’s 905-point drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average or the latest surge in border closings didn’t capture your attention, that may actually be a good thing. Both are a product of omicron, the latest coronavirus variant to rear its ugly head. First detected in South Africa, this version of COVID-19 comes with a very high global risk of disease surges, according to the World Health Organization. It has already been found in a variety of countries, from Australia to the United Kingdom, as well as our neighbor to the north: Canada, with at least two cases confirmed in Ontario. How serious a health threat does it pose? Scientists aren’t quite sure. But because of its composition, experts believe it represents a greater risk of spreading quickly. But it also appears to be producing relatively mild symptoms so far, and it will take weeks yet to determine exactly how it may interact with vaccines and therapies.
What should we do about it? That’s easy: From the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on down, doctors believe the most sensible strategy at this point is to, in essence, keep doing what we’re supposed to be doing. That means getting fully vaccinated (including a booster for eligible adults) and following prevention strategiesm such as wearing a mask in public indoor settings, keeping social distances and washing hands frequently. Sound familiar? It should. These are the proven methods for dealing with all known COVID variants. And we would add that nobody at the CDC or the National Institutes of Health or any other reputable public health organization has recommended that people panic.
Is the rise of omicron welcome news as Americans long for a normalized holiday season after 19 months of a pandemic? No, of course, not. But public health threats don’t go away if we choose to ignore them, as some would have us do, or to overreact by closing borders to fully vaccinated travelers, a policy that threatens to make matters worse by disrupting the global economy. What’s needed here is the kind of strategic thinking and resolve that accompanies most every successful battle, military or otherwise. We have made tremendous progress in the battle against COVID and should not lose sight of what has worked best — multiple doses of vaccines having proven to be our most reliable weapon to date.
Similarly, it’s far too early for renewed talk about shutdowns within the U.S. or other draconian measures that were necessary early in the pandemic. There are certain media outlets (and you know who they are) that like to foment distrust of Washington with over-the-top speculation over how medical experts (generally described as government-loving liberals) are itching to take one’s rights away. Don’t fall for it. Masking and vaccination are simply smart safety measures.
If people want to engage in meaningful public debate regarding this latest variant, here’s a much better topic of disucssion: how the United States could do a better job of getting vaccines to countries that lack them. It’s probably no coincidence that omicron emerged from Africa, where countries like South Africa and Botswana have relatively low vaccination rates of around 20%. They simply don’t have the shots to give. Rich countries like the U.S. ought to be sharing more. If not out of compassion, then pragmatism as the more COVID-19 circulates among people, the more likely variants are to rise. In this respect, we really are one big petri dish, and we can’t fully address the pandemic by helping just one side of the sample.
Of course, that doesn’t stir the flames of nationalism the way border lockdowns can even if they have proven to be ineffective in the past. Fretting about inequality sounds so, well, liberal. But it’s also at the root of the problem. Americans should remember that even before omicron, the pandemic hadn’t exactly resolved. In Maryland, despite a drop in COVID numbers this fall, cases have been on the rise again with expectations of a winter surge in disease, hospitalizations and deaths. And who is at greatest risk? As always, it’s the unvaccinated. That was true before omicron was ever discovered, and it’s likely to remain true going forward.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.