Opinion | What Our Omicron Future Should Look Like

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By Jay K. Varma

Dr. Varma is a professor at Weill Cornell Medicine and an epidemiologist focused on implementing large-scale responses to infectious diseases such as Covid-19, including recently in New York.

If you want to know what the Omicron variant means for protecting you and your community in the next few months, look at New York City. The variant is causing a dramatic surge of cases in the unvaccinated and vaccinated alike and will almost certainly become the dominant strain in weeks — a process that took the Delta variant months. This will soon happen across the country, adding to the wintertime surge many places are already experiencing because of Delta infections.

The great unknown is whether a record number of infections will translate into a record number of hospitalizations and deaths. If the country rapidly adjusts its public health strategy, this potential toll can be avoided.

Public acceptance of Covid disruptions, like business and school closings, has waned. Combine that with a highly infectious variant, and policymakers are left with a limited number of options. But they are not helpless. President Biden’s Covid-19 address planned for Tuesday must lay out how the federal government will support states in reducing severe illness and death, while maintaining the public’s resolve to follow basic Covid-19 control measures. These two goals work together: If severe illness and death can be limited, the public is more likely to patiently continue going along with basic control measures; yet if those measures intensify and end up exhausting both the vaccinated and unvaccinated, they will be ineffective.

While Omicron means that a large number of coronavirus infections is now inevitable, vaccines mean a correspondingly large number of hospitalizations and deaths is optional. Adjusting Covid-19 policies and intensifying support for hospitals, nursing homes and schools can help reduce severe illness and promote public acceptance.

Policy change begins with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention redefining people as “up-to-date” or “fully vaccinated” if they have received their initial shots plus a booster, because the additional dose increases protection against Omicron. The message must be crystal clear: In the time of Omicron, being “up-to-date” may only delay, not prevent, you from being infected, but it will protect you from becoming severely ill and help your community avoid running out of hospital beds. (In places that mandate vaccinations for all health care workers, staffing shortages may be exacerbated in the short term, as some people will resist an additional injection. It will, however, prevent work force disruptions over the long term, as it will avert some infections and protect many from severe illness.)

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