Scarcely two months after the Omicron variant drove coronavirus case numbers to frightening heights in the United States, scientists and health officials are bracing for another swell in the pandemic and, with it, the first major test of the country’s strategy of living with the virus while limiting its impact.
At local, state and federal levels, the nation has been relaxing restrictions and trying to restore a semblance of normalcy. Encouraging Americans to return to prepandemic routines, officials are lifting mask and vaccine mandates and showing no inclination of closing down offices, restaurants or theaters.
But scientists are warning that the United States isn’t doing enough to prevent a new surge from endangering vulnerable Americans and potentially upending life again.
New pills can treat infections, but federal efforts to buy more of them are in limbo. An aid package in Congress is stalled, even as agencies run out of money for tests and therapeutics. Though less than one-third of the population has the booster shots needed for high levels of protection, the daily vaccination rate has fallen to a low.
While some Americans may never be persuaded to roll up their sleeves, experts said that health officials could be doing a lot more, for example, to get booster shots to the doorsteps of older people who have proved willing to take the initial doses.
“You use the quiet periods to do the hard work,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “You don’t use the quiet to forget.”
The clearest warnings that the brief period of quiet may soon be over have come, as they often have in the past two years, from Western Europe. In a number of countries, including Britain, France and Germany, case numbers are climbing as an even more contagious subvariant of Omicron, known as BA.2, takes hold.
In interviews, 10 epidemiologists and infectious disease experts said that many of the ingredients were in place for the same to happen in the United States, though it was unclear if or when a wave might hit or how severe it might be.
Case numbers are still dropping nationally, but BA.2 accounts for a growing proportion of those infections, rising to almost one-quarter of new cases last week. The subvariant is estimated to be 30 to 50 percent more contagious than the previous version of Omicron, BA.1. [Continue reading…]