The omicron surge couldn’t have come at a worse time.
After two years of things like mask-wearing, fights over mask-wearing and constant risk calculation over mask-wearing, people are exhausted and more divided than ever. Add in a healthy dose of mixed messaging and conflicting information, and we’ve got a real problem on our hands.
One example of that mixed messaging: The Well, UNC-Chapel Hill’s in-house news source, published — and later changed — an article from UNC Health Monday telling people not to wear KN95 masks because they “remain in short supply” and “aren’t necessarily better if they don’t fit properly.”
Yet most medical experts — as well as state officials — have said you should, in fact, ditch your cloth mask for a medical-grade one. Unlike at the beginning of the pandemic, there isn’t really a shortage of masks anymore, and respirators like the KN95 provide significantly higher protection against the omicron variant, especially given how infectious it is.
These mixed signals are nothing new, leading to confusion and mistrust about what guidance to follow. Should you get tested before ending your isolation? Are at-home tests even reliable? How careful does one need to be, really?
The blame can, in part, be attributed to the federal government, namely the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose constant flip-flopping has spurred a crisis of credibility. The CDC’s own advice, as well as that of the president, is often at odds with what public health experts and doctors recommend, including this week’s mask guidance from UNC Health. The American Medical Association, the nation’s largest association of physicians, criticized the CDC’s updated isolation and quarantine guidance, saying it risks further spread of the virus.
Still, conflicting information is only partially to blame for the crisis at hand. Instead of getting tougher on COVID, we sometimes appear to be giving up.
At colleges and universities, for instance, transmission among students and instructors is seen as something to be expected rather than prevented. In-person operations at public universities began this week with few restrictions, despite predictions from epidemiologists who say COVID-19 infections could peak at 1,650 positive cases per day at UNC-Chapel Hill. Vaccines, including the booster, are not required at UNC System campuses, and many schools have even scaled back their testing and isolation protocols.
Even the White House seems to have had enough.
“For the unvaccinated, you’re looking at a winter of severe illness and death for yourselves, your families and the hospitals you may soon overwhelm,” White House COVID coordinator Jeff Zients said at a December press briefing.
State and local government officials have adopted a similar strategy of shrug and surrender as they attempt to balance public health and politics, too often erring on the side of the latter. There’s not much political or economic appetite for COVID restrictions anymore — politicians have vowed to keep schools open and avoid further shutdowns. Many Democratic governors won’t even reinstitute statewide mask mandates.
“This is not March 2020,” they say. And in some ways, that’s true. We have vaccines now and omicron appears to be milder, thankfully, at least among those who are vaccinated. Nonetheless, our pseudo-surrender does come with a price. As cases are surging, hospital staffs are pushed beyond their limits. Our lives are disrupted anyway, not out of precaution, but out of necessity. Flights are being canceled, surgeries rescheduled, schools closed, because there simply aren’t enough healthy people to keep things running smoothly.
We seem determined to let omicron run its course, but as the virus burns through the population, what carnage is it leaving behind? More deaths. Sick children. Vaccinated people who are now saddled with long-term illness and disability. But if we can’t rely on our institutions for protection — or even reliable information — the virus itself may be the least of our worries.