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Grappling with an uncertain reality as omicron and covid’s third year approach

An empty check-in area at Narita Airport in Japan last week. The country has closed its borders to new foreign arrivals, and citizens must isolate on arrival from nations where the omicron variant has been found. (Toru Hanai/Bloomberg News)

PORTLAND, Ore. — Like most people in the United States, Michael Kerr got word of the new omicron variant on Thanksgiving Day, when the news surfaced on his wife’s cellphone.

“We looked at it, and we were just like, ‘Not now,’ ” said Kerr, director of strategy for the Portland Bureau of Transportation. “I think everyone’s just generally feeling malaise and just utter frustration. I think people are less scared than they are just tired.

“Everything’s kind of in limbo again,” he added. “It feels like it’s July all over again. And who knows what’s going to happen?”

An eventual “end” to the coronavirus pandemic has been an article of faith since the virus first crashed ashore in the United States nearly two years ago. There is still no reason to doubt it will happen. Powerful, protective vaccines and naturally acquired immunity will one day make this virus endemic, something akin to the flu, a part of the public health landscape.

What to know about the omicron variant of the coronavirus

But as the slow-moving crisis heads into its third year, with the new variant threatening to upend another holiday season, echoes of the past two years are unmistakable. International travel bans and quarantines? They’re back. Older people scrambling for shots? Back. Personal risk tolerance calculations with each and every move? Also, possibly, on their way into our lives again.

Several countries imposed travel restrictions to stop the spread of the omicron variant, but the WHO says the move only works “at the beginning of an outbreak. (Video: Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)

The virus comes at us in waves, raising and dashing hopes as it ebbs and surges, or as scientists respond with countermeasures. Living that way is maddening and exhausting, experts say. Perhaps the third year of the pandemic calls for us to view the coronavirus as a long-term presence in our lives, not a foe that will be vanquished anytime soon. And to behave accordingly.

“Adjusting our expectations to account for unpredictability, uncontrollability and the fact that our lives may be disrupted on and off, and building that into our expectations, would be good for our mental health,” said Karestan Koenen, a professor of psychiatric epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“As humans, we don’t have as much control as we think we do. The virus has just made it very clear,” she added.

Some people may have recognized this already. When an Axios/Ipsos poll asked respondents last month to predict when they would return to their “normal, pre-covid life,” 16 percent said that would never occur, the largest proportion since the poll started asking the question at the start of 2021.

Tracking the critical statistics in the coronavirus pandemic

That was up substantially from 5 percent in March and May, during the optimism of the vaccine rollout. Another 26 percent said it would take more than a year. But 22 percent said they already were back to normal.

In Detroit, Shirley Waller, a 24-year-old nursing assistant, said at this point in the pandemic, she waffles between acceptance and denial that the virus will be around for years to come. Sometimes she just tries to block out thoughts of what the future will look like. She gets through the day by reminding herself that eventually, conditions will improve.

“There’s stuff that we’re trying to do to make it stop, and it’s like it keeps going,” Waller said as she waited for a bus outside the Rosa Parks Transit Center downtown. “I just know that it has to get better.”

But James Thomas, owner of Williams Barber College in Fort Worth, has been shaken by the emergence of the new variant, which he sees as a threat to him and his business.

“I’m definitely afraid of it, for sure,” Thomas said as he cut hair in his nearly full shop at the edge of downtown. He worries that a continuing threat, from omicron or another variant, will become the new normal.

“I definitely hope it doesn’t happen,” he said. “I’d love to see life again before covid.”

As with previous waves of the virus, all this anxiety comes before much is known about the omicron variant. Looking at its cluster of mutations, scientists have speculated that it could be more transmissible than even the delta variant and may evade vaccines’ protection better than previous versions of the coronavirus.

Neither theory has been confirmed. There is still some chance that omicron will be less destructive than expected. The variant was detected in South Africa roughly two weeks ago, and testing for it is just ramping up. A number of cases have been detected in the United States in at least 17 states, including California, Colorado, Minnesota and New York.

New omicron variant of the coronavirus alarm scientists

President Biden has called the latest development cause for concern, not panic. “This will end,” Anthony S. Fauci, the president’s top medical adviser, vowed last Wednesday. “I promise you that this will end.”

But our brains are constantly trying to impose order and predictability on our surroundings and circumstances. Faced with two years of disruption and uncertainty, strong reactions are only natural.

“There is great variability in how we, as humans, perceive and react to uncertainty,” according to Jayne Morriss, a senior postdoctoral researcher at Britain’s University of Reading, who studies tolerance of uncertainty. “With some people tending to find uncertainty more stressful than others. . . . Recent research suggests that ‘accepting’ or ‘sitting with the uncertainty’ can help you become more resilient towards uncertainty,” Morriss wrote in an email.

Fear is also very damaging to mental health, Koenen said. She advised moving from a “fear-based approach” to the pandemic to one that emphasizes coping and problem-solving. In areas prone to earthquakes and wildfires, for example, mapping out a plan for a disaster not only makes people better prepared but helps their outlook, she said.

“This is potentially going to come and go,” Koenen said of the virus. “What are the things I can do to make this easier for me and my family?”

Another important part of the strategy is to limit consumption of news via the media and information from social media, she said.

In Saginaw, Mich., 85-year-old Bob Brasseur said he sees no point in worrying about the latest twist in the pandemic, though he is not vaccinated and has no plans to be.

“I don’t think it’s any different than any other season of the past,” he said. “Everyone is politicizing it.”

Brasseur said he has no sense of how the pandemic will progress or how long he’ll be living with surges of the virus. But the unknowns don’t bother him.

“A virus is a virus. It has to work its way out,” he said. “Maybe this covid-19 will hang around. Who knows? I’m not a doctor.”

In Aledo, Tex., Lisa Self said she is still exhausted after a lengthy stay in the hospital for covid-19. And now omicron could be coming.

“It’s like it’s never going to end. Every time you turn around, a new variant comes out,” she said.

Still, neither Self nor her husband believe in vaccines. In part, they don’t think they’ve been proved safe, though nearly 200 million Americans have fully immunized with vaccines that health officials say are safe and effective.

Some experts believe it is most prudent to plan for a lengthy continuing bout with covid, whether that means an epidemic or a less threatening move to endemicity.

“This virus is going to be with us for a long time,” said Ali Mokdad, who models the future of infections, hospitalizations and deaths for the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. “We have to live with it and we have to go with the long haul.”

But even in heavily vaccinated Portland, where Kerr’s two young children have received their shots and the state still requires masks indoors, the day-to-day is confusing and worrisome.

“Will our vaccinations protect us or not?” Kerr asked. “It’s just the messages are so mixed right now. It’s really hard to know how to feel.”

Douglas reported from Aledo and Fort Worth, Tex., and Ruble from Detroit and Saginaw, Mich. Emily Guskin in Washington contributed to this report.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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