Get ready for Covid Omicron Variant Bs2, America.
Everything is lining up for another wave of infections and deaths.
If you want to know what’s coming down the pike, just look at Hong Kong, China and Europe.
In China it’s hard to know how many people really have become infected with the new highly contagious Omicron variant Ba2, but according to official reports, the current wave is the highest it’s been since the initial outbreak in Wuhan more than two years ago. According to Reuters, China has 20 cities in lockdown, including both major economic centers, Shanghai and Shenzhen.
Meanwhile Hong Kong, a city now a part of China, and one which had until recently managed to keep its Covid infection rate at among the lowest in the world, is now being overwhelmed with infections, particularly among its elderly, who it turns out were not getting vaccinated at anywhere near the rate of younger residents. In early March, the daily infection in this city of seven million hit 50,000 per day while Covid fatalities hit 3444.
In the UK Covid cases, mostly the Ba2 variant, are on the rise, hitting peak of 180,000 a day in early March when the average daily infection rate has been 87,000 per day — this in a population in which 92% of people over the age of 12 have had at least one dose of vaccine, 86% have had a second shot and 67% have had one booster — well above the rates in all categories in the US.
Note that in China and Hong Kong, as in most of Asia, nobody objects to wearing a mask. It’s been standard behavior for any kind of disease outbreak from SARS to the flu, and has helped minimize transmission even where there are not vaccines readily available.
Now, things are different in this “exceptional nation,” the United (sic) States of America. Here, despite the general availability of free vaccinations, the latest figures show that 77% of the population has had one vaccination, 65% have received two doses and only 29% have received a booster dose.
Unsurprisingly, the US has among the highest Covid death rates in the world: one million. And that is probably way lower than the real number ,given how deaths get reported on death certificates, which typically offer four causes of death listed by the medical examiner or the person’s physician in order of importance or causal relationship. For example a person’s death certificate might list the ultimate cause of death as heart failure, caused by pneumonia, caused by an earlier Covid infection. Because the ultimate cause of death on such a form is “heart failure” the person’s death would be listed as heart failure, not the Covid infection that led ultimately through a linked chain of events to the heart ceasing to beat. (That by the way would be my mother-in-law, dead on April 26, 2020 in one of the early examples of a nursing home Covid fatality.)
And to make matters worse, the US has a problem with masks. People consider them an annoyance — one that is just too much to bear, poor dears — and in many cases as a supposed political affront to their “freedom,” akin to making them get a gun permit or denying them a gun because they’re diagnosed psychopaths.
I have a friend, a jazz musician who works between gigs at a local “big box” store. Old enough to be in the vulnerable-to-Covid age bracket, he masks up on the job, including a face shield, especially because these days in Pennsylvania, masking is not mandatory in restaurants and stores. He says many unmasked shoppers at the store will approach him asking for directions to some product area in the store or for information on a product on his aisle. When that happens, he puts up a hand and says, “Please don’t come any closer to me unless you put on a mask.”
Once, he says, a male shopper in that situation replied to him, “You’re interfering with my freedom!” to which my sharp-witted friend says he replied, “No I’m not, I’m just exercising my free-smart.” He says the guy looked at him quizzically, and said, “What’s free-smart?” He responded, ‘The opposite of your free-dumb.”
It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.
As my old friend Charles Vidich, a Harvard public health graduate and author of the recently published brilliant and timely book Germs at Bay: Politics, Public Health and American Quarantine (Praeger, 2022) tells me, the US is in a uniquely bad position to tackle a pandemic. “Before 1820, decisions about quarantining were made very locally and participatorally,” he says, “but now it’s all decisions by the federal government, and as a result many people say ‘To hell with you. We’ll do what we think is right.’”
Unfortunately at the same time, he says, “Per capita public spending on public health to deal with communicable disease is less than it was a century ago!” He adds, “As a people, we think we are more intelligent today than people a century ago, but while there has been a lot of progress in medical science, there has been less public education about health.”
“Worse yet,” he says, “we have lost the consciousness that what we do affects other people. Community trust is gone.”
Vidich is scathing in his appraisal of the Centers for Disease Control under both the Trump and Biden administration during this pandemic. “The CDCs decisions have been made dictatorially, not in consultations with the public,” he says. “They’ve been making technocratic and political decisions without taking public attitudes into account.” He notes that the CDC has also been inconsistent in its decisions.
As he notes, “What can you expect? The US Public Health Service, predecessor to the CDC, when it was created, was under the direction of the US Treasury Department, not the Department of Health. Keeping the economy going has always been a primary focus.”
So here we are today with President Biden, whose popularity is in the toilet, declaring at his State of the Union address in February that the CDC was announcing that masking would no longer be required outside of hospitals and medical facilities, and saying that through “most of the country people can now go mask-free.”
Here’s the problem with that. The new Ba2 variant is more contagious than the original Omicron variant, and it’s also more serious. As well, there are studies now going out showing that the “mild” Covid that people seem to get most of the time in break-through cases where they’ve already been vaccinated, turn out very often to result, even in younger people, in measurable brain shrinkage and loss of cognitive ability — shrinkage that is equivalent to six years of brain aging, and that is irreversble. This suggests that if we have another wave of this latest variant, we’ll have a population that is significantly less intelligent (if that were possible!) than it was before the pandemic. If that prospect doesn’t get people to put those masks on, and to get a booster shot they had been avoiding, perhaps for fear of being made magnetic, one might assume that they already caught the disease and were already having difficulty thinking rationally in their own self interest. (Then again, at least in the case of adults, it is likely that it will be people with already decreased cognitive function who end up suffering such damage, making it all that much worse.)
Also, putting aside the risk to one’s brain power, there is the matter of older relatives, including parents, friends or relatives who may be diabetic or suffering from one or another kind of immune deficiency, whether MS or sarcoidosis or thyroid disease, or perhaps undergoing chemotherapy or even just treatment with prednisone, a common therapy for all kinds of ailments but which temporarily weakens immunity.
There are 60 million Americans who are over 60, and thus are known to be much more vulnerable to serious complications or death from Covid because of typically weaker immune systems. There are also millions of children under 5 who cannot yet be vaccinated, as well as millions more children aged 5-11 who, even if vaccinated, turn out to be only 24% protected from Covid due to the National Institute of Health’s having recommended too low a dose for adequate immune response. While there is considerable overlap with the elder population, remember too that 43% of Americans are considered obese and nearly 10% are seriously obese, putting them at serious risk of death from Covid, and that another 3% of Americans at any given time are taking some kind of immuno-suppressing drug, ranging from the widely perscribed steroid prednisone to chemo drugs. (3% seems a small number but 3% of 330 million is almost 10 million people.)
This means if you as an American adult, insist on putting yourself in jeopardy by not getting vaccinated or even wearing a mask when you go to into a crowded market, restaurant or enclosed public space, out just casually returning to going to bars, parties, and eating in restaurants, it’s not just you who is taking a chance. There are perhaps close to 100 million fellow Americans whom you are putting at risk, and not just of getting a little sick, but of getting seriously ill or dying.
Says Vidich, “We haven’t had a situation like this since the Spanish Flu of 1918-19.”
Only this time it’s much worse, he says, “Because since then we’ve built huge apartment buildings and office that crowd more people together, mass transit that’s great for capitalism but not great for avoiding the spread of disease, We’ve even weakened building codes to allow less space per person in apartments.”
He notes too that with air travel so fast and ubiquitous, any highly contageous pathogen like the Covid SARS virus, can cross oceans and continents in hours, or go global in days.
So get ready. This next Covid wave of Ba2, which is now the cause of one quarter of all new cases in the US, is going to be serious, especially in Red states like Florida, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and western states like Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Montana and the Dakotas, where Republican yahoos running state governments are actively working to discourage mask wearing and in some cases denigrating vaccines.
If you aren’t vaccinated, get vaccinated, and if you are vaccinated but it’s been a while, get a booster, and wear a goddam mask whether you like it or not when you go out. If you don’t want to do any of this for yourself. fine, but then at least do it for your parents or grandparents and other older people or immunocompromised friends or relatives.
And look, if you’re not going to show any concern about others, I for one am not going to wish you well. I happen to be one of those with an autoimmune condition that weakens my immune response to vaccines making me more vulnerable to Covid even with boosters and to people who cavalierly go around spreading the virus. Accordingly, I am hoping if you’re one of them that you succeed in getting yourself added to a special chapter in the next Darwin Awards book edition honoring people who took one for the gene pool and died after having decided that Covid is “no big deal” or a “fake news conspiracy” and that vaccines and masks are for suckers and sissies..