For the second year in a row, a winter coronavirus surge is upon us. Infections were already on the rise before the extremely contagious omicron variant emerged; now, some projections have the United States on track to reach more than 1 million new infections a day.
Growing research shows that existing vaccines provide significant protection against severe illness as a result of omicron. Those recently boosted with the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccines have the best protection, including a decreased likelihood of mild breakthrough infections.
It would be reasonable for the vaccinated and boosted to decide that they will continue traveling, dining out and seeing friends and family. Generally healthy people could conclude that their chance of getting seriously ill from omicron is very low. Their fear of hospitalization or long-haul symptoms may be outweighed by their desire to return to pre-pandemic activities.
For them, and for much of the vaccinated population, the calculation has changed from the risk that the coronavirus poses to them to the risk they could pose to others. Restricting their activities isn’t necessary or productive and would serve only to disincentivize vaccination.
Instead, vaccinated people can take three key precautions that allow them to go about most aspects of their lives while continuing to be responsible members of society.
First, wear a high-quality mask. Cloth masks are little more than facial decorations and should not be considered an acceptable form of face covering. The United States should follow Germany’s example in requiring medical-grade surgical masks to be worn in crowded indoor spaces. On trains and planes, N95 or KN95 respirator masks should be the norm, as they are in Austria.
Second, obtain a rapid test before indoor, maskless get-togethers. I’m a proponent of the “two out of three” rule: When virus levels are high, you need at least two out of three following layers of protection: vaccines, testing or masking. For example, a holiday party with food and drink (and therefore no masks) should require both vaccination and a negative test as close to the event as possible.
Of course, this hinges on widespread availability of home tests, which is not the case in the United States. President Biden should commit to a three-month goal of distributing rapid tests to every American who wants them, free of charge, so it becomes the norm for everyone to be tested before gathering with those outside their household.
Third, use additional tools such as quarantine and staying outdoors. For vaccinated people, the main reason to avoid a high-risk event is fear of catching the coronavirus there and then inadvertently spreading it to others. But they could avoid this by being careful afterward. Wait a few days and then get tested before visiting an immunocompromised or otherwise medically frail relative. Or see them outdoors only, which remains very safe.
None of these methods, even if they reduce transmission substantially, will stop covid-19 altogether. They also don’t account for the unfair burden on those who remain unprotected and not by choice. As the mom of two kids too young to be vaccinated, I feel this acutely. But I also don’t want to limit everyone else’s activities. My family will still take additional precautions; we won’t dine inside restaurants or bring the kids to unmasked holiday events. But I don’t think it’s irresponsible for others to make different choices when the reality of how covid-19 impacts them is now very different from mine.
There’s one group that I do think has been grossly irresponsible and is largely to blame for the “viral blizzard” we are in. That’s the group still choosing to remain unvaccinated. These are the same individuals who, by and large, ignore other covid-19 precautions and are therefore most likely to get infected, transmit to others and become severely ill themselves.
If anyone should have their activities limited, it’s the unvaccinated. More cities should follow Los Angeles, Seattle and New York in requiring proof of vaccination to go to restaurants, concert venues and gyms. A federal vaccination mandate for plane and train travel would also incentivize vaccination and reduce the spread of future variants.
Millions of Americans have done everything that has been asked of them. These conscientious citizens should not have to keep paying the price for the unvaccinated. Yes, omicron poses a major threat, but we have many more ways to contain the coronavirus than we did a year ago. The vaccinated need to be allowed — even encouraged — to assess their own risks and keep living their lives.
After all, omicron is almost certainly not the last dangerous variant we will see. This winter surge is a test of how we can and must coexist with covid-19.