My family’s Omicron question: What do we do now?

On the Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving, my wife, two kids, and I prepared to drive from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Omaha, Nebraska. We were all so eager to resume a family tradition that we had missed in last year’s terrible winter. As we packed our suitcases, chose snacks for the road, and filled coolers with pumpkin and pecan pie, two different kinds of cranberry sauce, and a vat of my wife’s famous mashed potatoes, life felt comfortingly normal.

But we also did something different. Before we finished breakfast, we broke out cotton swabs, circled the inside of each nostril at least five times, then placed the swab in solution and applied the solution to testing strips. Over in Omaha, my sister and her family did the same thing. Within fifteen minutes, the rapid antigen Covid-19 tests came back negative and — with at least a little more confidence — we hit the road.

Five days later, as we made our way back home, news of the Omicron variant was sweeping the country, and indeed the world. What do we do now?

Once upon a time, I hoped that preventive measures would push Covid-19 from pandemic to endemic by the end of this year, but that’s clearly not happening — though a combination of global vaccine distribution and effective antiviral treatments will, I still believe, get us there eventually. But in the meantime, I’m not finding it realistic to try and return my own or my family’s behavior to the harsh practices of the last year.

First, it’s pretty clear that a loud minority in American society simply is not going to comply with basic public health measures. They resisted lockdowns, resisted masks, resisted virtual school, resisted sensible social distancing in public places like restaurants and cinemas, and now are resisting vaccines. And without a higher percentage of cooperation, the rest of us have had to live in the disease-ridden world that these defectors make. It’s not fair. It makes me furious.

But it’s the reality of the situation, especially because many Republicans seem to be seeking political profit in spreading vaccine misinformation and fears, fighting vaccine mandates, then decrying the continued pandemic as if it was President Joe Biden’s fault (not that he’s blameless, more on that below).

Second, and this is the good news, we have tools in December 2021 that simply weren’t available to us last winter. We now have at-home rapid Covid-19 antigen tests available, most of the time, at corner pharmacies and through online retailers. They aren’t perfect, with one study finding an accuracy rate of around 80%, but when micro-communities like my family and my sister’s family all take them, you can be pretty comfortable that no one is contagious at that moment for Covid-19. And pretty comfortable, when we’re also all vaccinated, is good enough for me.

Unfortunately, the US has lagged other countries in approving tests and hasn’t invested in providing them to everyone in America, the way that (for example) the German and UK governments have.

We also have better masks. When the pandemic began, not only was there confusion about mask utility, but N95 or comparable medical-grade masks just weren’t available, even for medical professionals. Now I can order 50 KN95 masks (which offer a similar level of protection as the N95 masks used by health professionals) for under $40 online and expect to have them by the end of the week. And don’t forget the great reassurance that being vaccinated and boosted can bring you, because the great majority of Americans hospitalized with Covid-19 are still unvaccinated. That’s a tool we also didn’t have a year ago.

I’m fighting back against my anxiety about an Omicron winter, which I know won’t help, by shifting my energy from fighting for societal-level solutions to just trying to take steps to protect those close to me without abandoning society. I hate it, but it’s the short-term best I can do. And I don’t want to do it alone. Even in this narrow range of activities, government can play a huge role.

When the Delta variant broke through in my family and infected all of us, a rapid test gave us our first warning. But there was no way to connect that positive result to tracking software in my state in order to alert people who had been around us. It boggles the mind that we still don’t have good tracking and tracing procedures in this hyper-digital and connected age.

What’s more, neither rapid tests nor high-quality masks are free, and the most vulnerable people will be those least able to afford the costs. I was heartened when Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, a Republican, distributed 500,000 rapid tests ahead of the Thanksgiving holidays. The federal government should initiate a similar national program at a much greater scale.

Similarly, President Trump was much and properly criticized for canceling a plan to ship 650 million N95 masks to Americans through the mail in 2020. But where are masks from Biden? The Biden Administration went all-in on vaccines, it hasn’t been the panacea it was heralded as (thanks to anti-vaxxers and their political allies), and that’s a tragedy. But it’s long past time to implement newer measures. Biden keeps talking about increasing production, but the proof will be when masks and tests actually arrive in the mail.

Moreover, if we’re going to concentrate on vaccines, as we should, we need better policies mandating paid time off for all workers who have side effects from vaccines, or even more so, when they get sick from Covid-19. There were some paid leave policies in Covid-19 relief bills, but they were never robust enough, are going to expire soon, and the need hasn’t changed.

The long fight against the pandemic will likely have many more twists and turns. We have to reach the endemic stage in order to protect those most at risk. We must figure out how not to let bad actors derail the basic functioning of society.

Meanwhile, Hanukkah is here, Christmas is coming, and my mixed-faith family craves community. With rapid tests, good masks, smart communication, we can make it through this Omicron scare without repeating last year’s winter isolation. But there’s still such a long road ahead until we’re once again made whole.

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