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Opinion: If omicron is dangerous, lax Americans aren’t ready to respond

Only seven states have any sort of mask mandate in place. Many people act as if hospital ICU wards aren’t full

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A nurse prepares to test a person for COVID-19 in Nigeria.

A nurse prepares to test a person for COVID-19 in Abuja, Nigeria, on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. Countries around the world slammed their doors shut again to try to keep the new omicron variant at bay Monday, even as more cases of the mutant coronavirus emerged and scientists raced to figure out just how dangerous it might be.

Gbemiga Olamikan, Associated Press

President Joe Biden struck the right tone on Monday. The omicron variant of COVID-19 is, as he said, “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic.”

Twenty months after the pandemic first caused general economic closures nationwide, discerning Americans ought to be familiar with the drill. Science needs time to understand the new variant, its transmissibility, virulence and resistance to vaccines. In the meantime, caution is the operative word.

Caution, not misinformation spread through the internet, and not wild conspiracy theories about never-ending lab-generated mutations. For some people, unfortunately, these fables will be too much to resist. That’s one reason why the pandemic remains with us.

The omicron variant will not be the last mutation of the COVID-19 virus, nor is it the first. It has gained the attention of scientists because it contains considerably more mutations than the delta variant, which has become the world’s dominant strain. Those mutations occur in ways that suggest resistance to antibodies that protect against earlier strains, including those contained in vaccines.

Early reports indicate that most omicron cases have been mild. None of this information, however, has been confirmed through enough observation and testing.

And so, early precautions have included travel bans to South Africa and other regions where the variant exists. Japan has gone as far as to ban all international travel.

Naturally, heads of state in affected countries have protested the bans, which will strike at their economies. The restrictions have a note of hypocrisy to them, as some in the affected region say vaccines have been slow to arrive in low-income countries.

The world seems ever slow to understand that problems allowed to fester in impoverished countries often end up spreading elsewhere.

It is important that travel bans stay in place no longer than absolutely necessary. However, the swiftness with which the world reacted to the omicron outbreak is good news in one aspect. It shows how much the international community has improved in its reaction to health threats — something that was lacking when the pandemic began.

Thankfully, the president stopped short of trying to impose any economic restrictions. Those measures are not warranted by the information at hand. They also are decisions that belong to state governments, even though states generally have proven woefully ineffective at imposing even simple, commonsense mask requirements.

Only seven states and the District of Columbia still have any sort of mask mandate in place, according to data from multistate.us. This, despite warnings from experts that even vaccinated people should wear them in public places and should avoid medium to large gatherings until the general population reaches herd immunity levels. 

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Kristin Englund told the Cleveland Clinic in October that, “we’re not out of the woods yet.” And yet many Americans, including in Utah, act as if hospital ICU wards are not dangerously full and thousands of new cases are not being diagnosed daily.

Perhaps those everyday realities, not an unknown variant in its nascent stages, ought to be generating the most concern right now. 

Americans, suffering from a pandemic fatigue borne of their own laxity, may have trouble protecting themselves from a future variant that poses a severe health risk.

Whether the omicron variant turns out to be such a risk is not known, but common sense argues for an abundance of caution, not panic, just in case.