The oncoming wave

The oncoming wave
Photo by Matt Paul Catalano / Unsplash

Here we go again. The new Omicron variant is spreading fast.

Unlike any other moment in the pandemic so far, where we’ve seen 100s, 1000s, or 100,000s of daily cases, we will soon see millions of cases per day in the United States. Remembering back to the early days of COVID-19 in March 2020, we were at the bottom of an exponential curve, looking up. While much has changed, we have once again found ourselves at the bottom of an exponential curve, looking up.

According to trends, the U.S. could see a peak of 2.8 million new cases per day some time around January 24, 2022. Who knows if there’s even close to enough testing available for numbers like that to register. Yet there’s this eerie feeling setting in: while we face the largest spread yet, no one is really talking about it.

Experts, governors warn of U.S. Omicron ‘blizzard’ in weeks ahead — Reuters
U.S. health experts on Thursday urged Americans to prepare for severe disruptions in coming weeks as the rising wave of COVID-19 cases led by the Omicron variant threatened hospitals, schools and other sectors impacting their daily lives.

Perhaps because we’ve grown so tired of hearing about COVID, we don’t want to burden anyone by bringing it up anymore. The pandemic has become a sore conversation piece.

We’ve gone through the shock, and the news isn’t shocking anymore. We’ve gone through waves 1, 2, 3, and 4. We’ve gone through the pang of loneliness from staying at home, the whirlwind of changing CDC guidelines, and workplace drama. After shutdowns sucked, we collectively declared, “never again.” Some of us have religiously followed the rules, while others just haven’t bothered. We’ve tried convincing our conservative friends to get vaccinated and wear masks, and yet at a certain point, people stopped being convince-able. So, another variant? Great, but what do you want me to do about it?

We’ve heard of “pandemic fatigue,” but it seems like we’re entering a new stage, something like “pandemic numbness.” When it feels like we’ve tried everything, what else is there to do?

I don’t know the answer. I’m writing this just to get my thoughts out, because maybe talking about it will help. Maybe advocating for the right principles will do some good for someone.

The fact is, we’re far from maxing out the tools we already have. For example, where I live in the Seattle area, people are mostly careful to wear masks in indoor settings, like at grocery stores and gyms. It’s become culturally commonplace for vaccinated people to mask up, and if you aren’t, you stick out like a sore thumb.

However in Iowa, where my family is from, people just go maskless. Many will work an entire day interfacing with customers, attend a packed church service, or stand in a crowded movie theater lobby with no masks in sight. Businesses don’t require employees nor customers to wear them. And the bizarre thing is, it’s not because Iowans disagree with wearing masks. It’s because leadership isn’t setting a proper example. There is this widespread misperception that the pandemic is over, and we don’t need to try anymore, or people have simply given up.

In less culturally liberal America, masks have become not just optional, but somehow embarrassing to wear. They are, according to signage, “recommended” but implicitly not critical. When you’re surrounded by people who don’t take mask wearing seriously, you feel crazy to be one of the few who do.

This behavior may have been okay in summer 2021, when the vaccines were freshly available and case numbers low. But we are edging into winter 2022, and times have changed. Unless you enjoy getting sick, it is well past time to mask up again: vaccinated, boosted, or not. Omicron spreads so much more easily (and quickly) than any version of COVID we’ve dealt with so far.

The hands-off attitude on wearing masks from government and business leaders needs to change urgently, but the cynic in me says it won’t. The news won’t be interpreted quickly enough, the tiredness of enforcing new rules will win, and in January 2022 there will be major disruptions in society as a result. People will be missing from work in droves.

Here’s the thing: I don’t know whether to be concerned or not. On one hand, the Omicron variant could spread widely and offer an exit ramp out of the pandemic, with most people experiencing a mild cold, resulting in a broader immunity. On the other hand, there’s a lot of sickness we could theoretically prevent if we just start wearing masks now, in everyday scenarios, and stop pretending like the pandemic has already ended. (Not to mention, getting a shot.)

And cloth masks won’t cut it. Nor will surgical masks. Now is the time to replace your mask with an N95, KN95, or KF94 from a trusted manufacturer. I recommend checking out Project N95, who source high-quality masks and respirators you can buy for a buck a piece with none of the counterfeits.

“We are going to see the number of cases in this country rise so dramatically, we are going to have a hard time keeping everyday life operating,” Dr. Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota, told MSNBC.

The small individual choices you make from New Years through February will have a huge impact. And I get it, even after doing everything right, you could still get sick. There’s that numbness slipping in. But damn it, I’m still going to write this post, because what else more can I do?