Opinion: Once Again, America Is In Denial About Signs Of A Fresh Covid Wave

In the past couple of weeks, UK, Germany, France and others are experiencing a new wave. The US should get ready

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‘Unfortunately, we have a mindset that the pandemic is over, which couldn’t be further than the truth.’ Photograph: Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Once again, America is in denial about signs of a fresh Covid wave” was written by Eric Topol, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 16th March 2022 10.25 UTC

When it comes to Covid, the United States specializes in denialism. Deny the human-to-human transmission of the virus when China’s first cases were publicized in late 2019. Deny that the virus is airborne. Deny the need for boosters across all adult age groups. There are many more examples, but now one stands out – learning from other countries.

In early 2020, with the major outbreak in the Lombardy region of Italy that rapidly and profoundly outstripped hospital resources and medical staffing, Americans expressed confidence that it won’t happen here. That it couldn’t happen here. And then it did.

Fast forward two years of the pandemic: the United Kingdom and Europe have provided five unmistakable warnings to America that a new surge was occurring. Within weeks, each time, the United States experienced a new wave, some not as severe (such as with the Alpha variant), some worse (Delta and Omicron variants). From this Covid track record over two years, it is palpable: what happens in the UK and Europe doesn’t stay in the UK and Europe.

In the past couple of weeks, the UK and several countries in Europe, including Germany, France and Switzerland, are experiencing a new wave. At least 12 countries, geographically extending from Finland to Greece, are experiencing new increases in cases, some quite marked, such as Austria exceeding its pandemic peak, and Finland with an 85% increase from the prior week. Many of these countries are also showing a rise in hospital admissions.

This is the sixth warning from the UK and Europe to the United States.

Indications within the United States support the idea that new wave is already getting started. Wastewater surveillance is relatively sparse in the United States, but 15% of the 410 sites where it was conducted between 24 February to 10 March 2022 showed a greater than 1000% increase compared with the prior 15-day period. Also, the BA.2 variant is gaining steam in the United States and is now accounting for more than 30% of new cases.

The root cause for the new wave is hard to pin down. Certainly, the BA.2 variant is known to have increased transmission, at least about 30% more than its sister lineage, Omicron BA.1. With the concomitant reduction of mitigation restrictions and waning immunity protection of vaccines, that transmission advantage will increase. This “BA.2 triad” of factors is thus hard to dissect, as they are clearly interdependent. Rather than focusing on what precisely is driving the new wave, the imperative is to drive some preventive action.

As with the first five warnings from the UK and Europe, the United States did not take heed. Instead of proactively gearing up with non-pharmaceutical interventions (masks, quality of masks, distancing, air filtration, ventilation, aggressive testing, etc.), it just reacted to the surges when they were manifest. Now we are at a point with very low vaccination and booster rates, only 64% of the populations has had two shots, and 29% three shots. That puts the United States at 65th and 70th in the world ranking of countries, respectively.

Indeed, the people who need protection the most, besides those who are immunocompromised, are the 65-plus group. The US has a booster rate of 65% in this age group, whereas the UK and many European and Asian countries exceed a 90% booster rate for people 65 and over.

This is a critical issue, because there is a substantial dropdown of protection, from 90-95% with a third shot to 75-80% without a booster, versus Omicron hospitalization and death. The problem of lack of adequate vaccination in the United States is compounded by not having any plan for a fourth dose. The Israeli study of over 1 million people age 60 and over showed a 4.3 fold enhanced protection versus severe illness from Omicron compared with those receiving three shots.

Not only is there a gaping hole in our immunity wall, but the bn budget of the American Pandemic Prepared Plan (AP3), advanced by the White House to comprehensively address the deficiencies, was gutted by the Senate and reduced to just bn. Under threat are the order of more than 9.2m Paxlovid pills, the Test-to Treat program announced at the State of the Union address, better data, wastewater surveillance, efforts to develop a pan-coronavirus vaccine, research on long Covid, and many other critical public health measures.

We haven’t even seen a new, major variant yet, but there are too many reasons to believe that is likely in the months ahead, owing to extensive animal reservoirs and documented cases of spillover to humans, a large number of immunocompromised people in whom the virus can undergo accelerated evolution, rare but increasingly seen co-infections, and lack of containment of the virus globally. That, in itself, requires preparedness. Unfortunately, we have a mindset that the pandemic is over, which couldn’t be further than the truth, as I wrote about in the epidemic of Covid complacency.

Add to all this is what is happening in China, which has fully relied on a zero-Covid policy, resulting in very little natural immunity, and vaccines that have weak efficacy against Omicron. Now this country is facing major outbreaks in two of its most populous cities, Shanghai and Shenzhen, and undoubtedly the whole country will be affected. We learned in 2019 that what happens in China doesn’t stay in China.

The time for American Covid denialism is long past.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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1 thought on “Opinion: Once Again, America Is In Denial About Signs Of A Fresh Covid Wave

  1. And what is UMass doing to get prepared for the BA2 wave?

    Not enough — at least not yet….

    The hastily-released March 8 letter from the directors of the Center for Public Health Protections states “individuals or departments cannot create mask requirements separate from or more restrictive than university requirements” but some UMass administrators have interpreted this as a “gag order” — for example, faculty have been told that if they say to their students that, when meeting in the classroom or for office hours, proper masking is “expected” would violate this guidance because the verb “expect” would be interpreted as “required” because of the “unequal power relationship between faculty and students” — as if faculty would punish students with a bad grade if the in-class or in-office mask expectation were unmet!?

    C’mon, folks, that’s not cricket!!!

    The “punishment” we’re talking about here are not bad grades for students, but serious potential health consequences for everyone — students and faculty and staff alike, as well as their friends and families. We know the prompt effects of COVID infection, even in the fully-vaccinated boosted, can lead to serious illness, infection of others in the household (like unvaccinated infants and young children, the elderly, the immunocompromised…), hospitalization, intensive care, intubation, and even death (the actuaries have weighed in: the death rate for those over 60 has increased substantially enough for that the price of our term life insurance has risen comparably). And the long term effects (ranging from chronic inflammation and fatigue to “brain fog” — I’m not sure about writing long comments to The Indy 😉 ) remain very poorly understood, with some evidence that “breakthrough” infections among the vaccinated & boosted can also lead to “long” COVID making any reassurance that there are few sequelae from a mild infection ring hollow….

    Faculty have been bending over backwards for the past two years to help their students learn and give students the benefit of the doubt in these difficult times. In many cases faculty have done this on their own, without compensation for the significant expense of upgrading their home internet services, building a home Zoom studios, and so forth.

    Over the spring break I’ve been remotely participating in a math conference. The hours are challenging — all the pleasures of jet lag, with none of the cherry blossoms — because it’s in Japan, postponed from a summer 2020 workshop in Kyoto because the Japanese have been much more careful about COVID.
    While I personally prefer being in-person to remote-virtual whenever possible, I expect — that is, I hope — UMass would be at least as careful about the health of its faculty, staff and students as I’ve (remotely) witnessed elsewhere in other parts of the world over the past two years.

    The least UMass could do is restore the mask-requirements in crowded indoor spaces (like elevators, restrooms and classrooms – I never expected to utter those three words together – as well as lobbies, stairways and hallways through which we need to pass), and to clarify that faculty and staff can not merely expect but actually require visitors to our offices to properly mask.

    Short of that, let’s remember what some of us learned as kids: “cannot” is not the same as “may not”….

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