The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Fighting omicron means facing reality. Slogans don’t help.

President Biden delivers remarks on developments related to the omicron variant on Jan. 4. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

The new year dawns with a pandemic of twin peaks. One is a medical and public health crisis, an enormous cascade of new daily cases, ultra-contagious but evidently less severe than in the past. The other is a wave of disruption caused by the sheer volume of spreading illness, threatening hospitals and health-care systems and confronting the country with a tsunami of absenteeism. Once again, the public faces threats to personal well-being and to the nation’s health and safety.

The imperative, as President Biden reiterated Tuesday, is to use the tools that work: vaccination, including boosters, the coming antivirals, quality face masks, upgraded ventilation, widespread testing and social distancing. But will it happen? Infections in Georgia are surging and hospital beds filling up, to which the Republican governor, Brian Kemp, pledged additional National Guard troops to hospital and testing sites. But Mr. Kemp criticized Atlanta for reimposing a mask mandate. He declared, “It is time to trust our citizens to do what’s right for themselves and their families. That is why I will absolutely not be implementing any measures that shutter businesses or divide the vaccinated from the unvaccinated, or the masked from the unmasked.” Mr. Kemp’s remarks on vaccines and masks are little more than crass bravado. Vaccines and masks work to save lives and protect individuals as well as the public at large. To shun them in the time of omicron is irresponsible. The new variant is extremely transmissible, and catching it is not much more difficult than breathing in someone’s secondhand cigarette smoke.

Mike Ryan, the physician who is head of the health emergencies program at the World Health Organization, was recently asked by the health news site Stat about lessons of the past two years of fighting the pandemic. What were the biggest mistakes? “The biggest collective failing has been that we’ve underestimated this microbe,” he replied. “In the end, the virus doesn’t have a brain. It’s just, from an evolutionary point of view, exploiting opportunities. And we seem to have consistently and persistently given it the opportunity.”

“There’s been tremendous social, economic, and political pressure to go back to normal,” he added. “Time and time again governments have tried to get back to normal and have overshot that runway by opening up too early.” He lamented a shocking “loss of trust” in government leaders and their public health policies. “They haven’t really convinced people or empowered people to continue with these basic measures to reduce the risk of infection. I think that’s been a problem, the whole way through the pandemic.”

Those who have been vaccinated appear to be well protected against serious disease or death with omicron. But the unvaccinated — 35 million, Mr. Biden estimated — are clogging hospitals, putting extreme stress on the health-care workforce. Absenteeism is roiling the economy, from school bus drivers to airplane pilots. The answer is not to throw up hands in despair, or to hide behind cheap political slogans against vaccines and masks. The answer is to use them and all the other means at our disposal to fight the twin peaks of infection and disruption.

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Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; Mili Mitra (public policy solutions and audience development); Keith B. Richburg (foreign affairs); and Molly Roberts (technology and society).