When it comes to the surging Omicron variant of COVID, just about all I’m hearing is advice about holiday planning. Should one attend a holiday party? Travel? Meet friends at a restaurant?
Much of the answer boils down to how to calculate one’s tolerance for risk when so little is known about Omicron except that it spreads easily. Experts are throwing around a lot of numbers. Columnists are sharing their own personal calculations.
I understand. We’re all a bit spooked and don’t know exactly what to do. Calculations offer a degree of reassuring certitude.
But why does America need to turn this latest COVID surge — as we do so much else — into a question of individual risk, personal calculation, and self-concerned choice? Personal responsibility is important, of course. But I worry that this hubbub over individual risk assessment is distracting us from what we need to do now as a society to be readier for Omicron than we were for Delta or for the first COVID surge.
It also plays directly into the hands of anti-vaxxers who want to believe COVID is only about personal choice. On Friday's Fox Business, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was asked if he was getting the booster. DeSantis smirked, shook his head no, and then went into a long harangue about why people should make vaccine decisions “for themselves.”
This past weekend, at Turning Point USA, the MAGA college Republican spin-off (whose founder died from COVID-19 last summer), Sarah Palin said it would be “over my dead body” that she got vaccinated (no pun intended). And Tucker Carlson (perhaps the most harmful person in America these days) railed against those who are urging vaccination, saying they just want to “punish people.” Carlson then praised the “naturally immune” who “earned it.”
It’s too easy for the rest of us to respond to this rubbish by telling ourselves that anti-vaxxers will pay the price because they’re putting themselves at much higher risk of being hospitalized and even dying. But this kind of thinking reflects the same dangerous fallacy — that each of us must make such life-or-death decisions for themselves.
On Friday, Jeff Zients, the White House COVID coordinator, inadvertently promoted this fallacy by telling reporters that while the administration will work to minimize Omicron disruption for the vaccinated, the unvaccinated should expect “a winter of severe illness and death for yourselves, your families....”
In reality, all of us are in this together. And so far, all of us together are failing. America's rate of deaths from COVID is the highest of all advanced nations. Fewer than 62 percent of us are fully vaccinated — the lowest of all advanced nations.
Those who continue to refuse to get vaccinated are endangering the rest of us — and not just because they’re increasing the risk of a “breakthrough” infection in those of us who have been fully vaccinated. As Omicron surges, the unvaccinated are likely to overwhelm hospitals throughout the land, making it harder for our entire health system to respond to all health needs and emergencies.
The unvaccinated are also incubators for the next variant.
Anti-vaxxers aside, the emphasis on individual risk is allowing us to forget the social needs that became exposed when the pandemic first hit in early 2020 — most of which are still unmet.
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We’re still doing almost no contact tracing compared to other advanced nations. Rapid COVID tests are still difficult to find, and too expensive. (The free tests that the Biden administration is touting won’t be available until next month.) N95 masks are still in short supply. There’s still little or no coordination among different levels of government. Biden’s order that large businesses require employees to be vaccinated remains stuck in the federal courts. Hospitals in many places still don’t have enough Intensive Care Units. We could once again face a shortage of ventilators.
In addition, too many workplaces are still unsafe. They’re still not required to test employees and report all COVID infections. They still don’t have to provide personal protective equipment. Workers still can’t stay home for fear getting the Omicron variant at work because we still don’t have a national system of paid leave (thanks to Joe Manchin and senate Republicans). They can’t quit their jobs because extended unemployment insurance has run out.
I’m unable to advise you about whether you should attend that holiday party or cancel your travel plans. But I can assure you that what we’re facing is not just a matter of personal choice or individual risk tolerance. We’re facing another test of America’s capacity to respond to a public-health crisis. And the safety of every one of us depends on the nation doing better this time than we did before.
What do you think?