A reportedly mild strain of the virus first reported in South Africa prompts a press conference over a single case in the US, a full on media freak out including recommendations for a near-perpetual virus traffic light warning system, and another round of justifications for vaccine mandates that have already been struck down by the courts, but are sure to a be a success this time.
Last week, the White House held a press conference after a single case of the new Omicron variant was found in the United States, yes one infected person in the entire country. The person afflicted had traveled from South Africa to the San Francisco Bay Area on November 22, 2021. The CDC press release on the case notes the “individual had mild symptoms that are improving, is self-quarantining and has been since testing positive.” Of course, the occurrence “further emphasizes the importance of vaccination, boosters, and general prevention strategies needed to protect against COVID-19.” They somehow failed to note, however, that the individual was fully vaccinated, although they hadn’t had a booster. Since then, more than 20 other cases have been identified in the United States, many of whom have been fully vaccinated and all of which have only experienced mild symptoms. This prompted Dr. Fauci to once again emphasize that supposed lab studies indicate booster shots are effective without actually citing any real evidence. So far, no one has been hospitalized, thankfully, but this should not be surprising. The South African doctor, Dr. Angelique Coetzee, who was among the first to discover the new strain had previously reported all the cases she observed were mild, unlike the Delta variant. “Most of them are seeing very, very mild symptoms and none of them so far have admitted patients to surgeries. We have been able to treat these patients conservatively at home,” she explained.
The apparent mild nature of this variant hasn’t prevented a full on media freak out, almost as if the “experts” and pundits were clamoring for more lockdowns. MSNBC’s Joy Reid harangued the Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, “My adult children live in NY. They’ve been screenshotting and sending me info on Omicron. It’s really frightening because it feels like it is the next sort of wave of the pandemic, and it feels kind of unstoppable. How much more dangerous is the Omicron variant than Delta?” Even CNN’s Brian Stelter found much of the coverage over the top, writing that “Omicron news coverage is in overdrive, but there’s still so much we don’t know,” while remarking on the abrupt reaction to the news, “stock sell offs, travel restrictions, endless Twitter threads.” He continued to quote science journalist, Erin Biba, who noted, “I have come to the conclusion that people love to panic,” calling it “completely and utterly exhausting that doomsday headlines and uninformed reporters create mass hysteria before we even have any details or information. Always wait! Before you panic, wait! Wait until you have more info…” Others were not so passive, however. New York Times reporter Stephanie Nolen returned from South Africa this past Thursday to bemoan maskless people on planes, “even when I pleaded and we KNEW people were already testing positive.” Writing, “Two years into this horror show, we’ve just got to be smarter and better at managing. I don’t know how you make people care about each other.”
In a similar vein, Abdulla Shihipar, writing for Slate.com, is concerned that many are still wondering when there will be an “off ramp” from pandemic restrictions entirely. He seems shocked that “large gatherings are continuing,” “concerts and stadiums (indoor ones!) are filled to the brim.” Of course, Mr. Shihipar doesn’t “mean to say that we should be simply masking forever, or even that we will need to do it consistently for the next few years,” but he believes there “are better ways for us to communicate a shift in advice, ones that take into account the likelihood that, as long as the pandemic is still happening, things will very likely shift again in the near future.” What is his brilliant idea in a world where restrictions come and go based purely on a politician’s whim? A traffic light type system. “Green periods would mean that it’s OK to not wear a mask (but it remains recommended in public crowded settings—why not mask up in Target, if it means you can more safely go maskless when socializing?). In yellow periods, people would start wearing masks in every indoor setting, as well as brace for a potential increase in restrictions. During red periods, people would be told to wear a mask and not gather in large groups.” Further, Mr. Shihipar sees this system as an omnipresent facet of our lives for the foreseeable future. “The traffic light is easy to communicate and easy to display publicly and in businesses. You could imagine such a graphic being displayed on windows and doors, on the TV alongside the day’s weather, or through a widget or app on your phone.”
The Biden Administration itself was downright tame by comparison, stopping short of endorsing actual lockdowns while launching a litany of new programs that are supposed to stop the spread, including extending the mask mandates that were originally for a hundred days out to over 400, for surely this time the government can control the virus. These new programs include expanded free at home testing for Americans, restrictions on travel, new protocols for safe international travel, new workplace protections, rapid response teams, treatment pills, and expansion of efforts to distribute boosters and vaccines to children. They’re even setting up new vaccine sites. Soon, your local fast food drive through will ask if you want a booster with your burger and fries. I’m kidding, or at least I hope so as nothing would really surprise me at this point.
At the same time, the President’s primary strategy remains vaccines and mandates. The rest is just additional window dressing to make it look like we’re doing something, anything. As I’ve said, you can think of him as Captain Ahab hunting Moby Dick, except with a much smaller harpoon. This has become so obvious that even The Atlantic agrees, though they seem to think going all in on vaccines that have completely failed to stop the spread is a great strategy. Peter Nicholas writes that “When President Joe Biden rolled out his plan requiring vaccinations on a mass scale, he sounded a bit like a gambler at a point of desperation.” Now, however, he believes, “Biden’s bet, while risky, grows more solid by the day,” convinced that never before attempted mandates have “appeal to a wider audience” including two “of the most prized voting blocks in an election,” “suburban and independent voters,” who “favor Biden’s vaccine mandate plan by solid margins.” Mr. Nicholas quotes Rob Stutzman, a long time Republican strategist from California. “Republicans could be making a real mistake on the long-term play on this issue, especially heading into the midterms. Voters are looking at this through a personal lens, not a political lens.” Biden’s vaccine mandates, you see, are “grounded in American tradition. George Washington ordered that his Continental Army be inoculated against smallpox while fighting the British during the Revolutionary War. Schools have long required vaccinations for diseases such as polio.”
Apparently, it never occurs to Mr. Nicholas that freedom and personal choice are also part of the American tradition, or to actually look at what is happening on the ground with his own eyes. The Delta variant tore through the country, despite vaccines being widely available for months beforehand and close to 50% of the populace being fully vaccinated as of July 15. This occurred after President Biden declared victory over the virus and recommended vaccinated people no longer wear masks. The situation was so unexpected that a new term, “breakthrough infections” was coined to describe the rather surprising occurrence that fully vaccinated people could still get sick and transmit the virus. The surge of Delta cases prompted the Biden Administration to reverse course and institute never before seen federal vaccine mandates. The reaction against the mandates has been so widespread that 19 governors have vowed to fight them and even Black Lives Matter joined the fray. The Federal courts themselves have since stayed the implementation of the mandates, preventing them from going into effect, meaning there is no current mandate happening whatever Biden might wish.
Private companies have also changed direction, with major airlines like Delta and Southwest rolling back mandate policies, sometimes entirely and sometimes in part. The Federal government itself is also scaling back enforcement of the mandate for its own employees with The Washington Post reporting that “Federal agencies won’t seriously discipline vaccine holdouts until next year,” after reaching a deal with the unions. The city of Chicago also caved on their mandate for police as well after a Federal judge blocked it. Right now, a bill is poised to pass the Senate banning the mandate entirely, backed by Democrat Joe Manchin, who said, “Let me be clear, I do not support any government vaccine mandate on private businesses. That’s why I have cosponsored and will strongly support a bill to overturn the federal government vaccine mandate for private businesses,” he wrote in a statement. Adding, “I have long said we should incentivize, not penalize, private employers whose responsibility it is to protect their employees from COVID-19.” In the the meantime, a higher percentage of people are vaccinate than ever before, and yet case counts are on the rise again, rapidly approaching 100,000 per day, meaning the increase in vaccinations is once again failing to slow the spread.
If this is success, what does failure look like? But, sure, let’s keep telling ourselves that the vaccine and accompanying mandates are the answer to all our problems because people love seeing nurses, firefighters, and police officers fired for refusing to comply. That’s America as we head into 2022: Crazy over COVID with no offramp, ever.