When it comes to dealing with covid-19 — as with most things — I have been pretty cautious. I dined outdoors last winter, shivering in the cold, because indoor dining was too dangerous. I held off going to theaters and concerts for a year. I got my vaccination shots — three of them so far — as soon as they were available. I always wear a mask when in stores. So why did I risk a family trip to France over the holidays despite record numbers of coronavirus cases in both France and the United States?
Because this isn’t 2020 anymore. While omicron is more ubiquitous than previous versions of the coronavirus, it appears to be less severe: It penetrates the upper airways but not the lungs. Moreover, booster shots provide strong protection against infection and even better protection against hospitalization. In New York City, where I live, the unvaccinated are 32 times more likely to land in the hospital than the vaccinated.
That’s why deaths and hospitalizations have not surged along with caseloads: The New York Times covid-19 tracker shows that over the past 14 days, while the number of coronavirus cases nationwide has increased by 204 percent, hospitalizations are up only 35 percent and deaths are down by 3 percent. Granted, hospitalizations and deaths are lagging indicators, but these figures still suggest that omicron is less dangerous than the original version of the coronavirus or the delta variant despite right-wing attempts to pretend that this is the same disease that it was two years ago.
There is a good reason that most governments around the world are not instituting lockdowns or travel bans, as they did in 2020, while maintaining other prudent precautions that right-wing populists disdain. I felt a lot better traveling to France knowing that everyone on the airplane had to present proof of vaccination and a negative coronavirus test. In France itself, we downloaded a convenient app to present proof of vaccination to enter restaurants and wore masks when in close proximity to other people. By taking such minimal precautions, we ensured that everyone in our family could test negative at the end of the trip, allowing us to return to New York as scheduled on Sunday.
This is how science is supposed to work: Public health recommendations change as the nature of the threat changes. But many on the right are being willfully dense about the changing character of the pandemic. They are claiming, with trademark illogic, that because omicron doesn’t require the same response as the original version of the coronavirus, the measures taken in 2020 were unnecessary.
Fox News, for example, wrote an article crowing: “Liberal journalist shift on coronavirus as omicron variant surges: ‘We don’t orient our lives around the flu.’” Radio host Ben Shapiro posted a lengthy Twitter thread claiming that “once it became clear that covid was not in fact a pagan god visiting vengeance on the unwashed Trump voters alone, the media and Democrats are now willing to admit the following” and went on to list various assertions such as “the death rate is comparable to the flu,” “we have to take into account societal needs, not just spread prevention,” and “we should not shut down society.”
Shapiro triumphantly concluded that omicron had vindicated “those of us” who “have been saying all this for months and most of it since May 2020. ... We chose data and freedom. You chose alarmism and unearned moral superiority.”
This is nonsense on stilts. It would be more accurate to say that Shapiro & Co. chose populist ideology while the rest of us chose science. It takes only minimal scientific literacy, after all, to realize that two very different versions of the same disease call for two very different responses. Strict public health measures, including lockdowns, were needed in early 2020 when the country was being swept by a terrible new virus that no one was vaccinated against. Those measures paid off in keeping the death toll far below the worst-case estimates of 1.7 million people dead. A more relaxed approach to omicron makes sense now not only because it is a milder variant but also because 62 percent of Americans have been fully vaccinated.
The danger from omicron would be reduced even further — and the death toll would be a lot lower — if more people were vaccinated and wore masks regularly. One of the main reasons that is not happening is that so many people are listening to right-wing agitators like Ben Shapiro who champion a misguided idea of “medical freedom.” Shapiro’s media company, the Daily Wire, even sued to stop President Biden’s well-warranted vaccination mandate for companies with more than 100 employees.
It’s true that those of us who are fully vaccinated don’t need to be as alarmed about omicron as we were about the original version of the coronavirus — and that’s why I’m willing to hazard a foreign trip today that would have been impossible a year ago. But that doesn’t mean that the original alarm was unwarranted or that we can simply drop our guard today. We need more mask and vaccine mandates — including a vaccination requirement for domestic air travel — to guard not only against omicron but also against future variants that might not be as mild.