The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As omicron emerges, a tired public has little appetite for new restrictions

President Biden delivered remarks on the threat posed by the omicron coronavirus variant on Nov. 29, encouraging Americans to get vaccinated. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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Cold weather is driving more Americans indoors. The holiday season has prompted a wave of travel, generating new lines of coronavirus transmission. And the delta variant has pushed up hospitalizations.

Now, adding to the potentially bad news, an ominous new variant has emerged: omicron.

But after nearly 21 months of coronavirus restrictions, there is little appetite in the country for the kinds of school closures, indoor-gathering bans and restaurant restrictions that defined the early days of the pandemic, according to health officials, who say the political will to push for unpopular — but effective — mitigation measures is waning.

“It is very exhausting,” said Ezekiel Emanuel, a physician and bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania who was on President Biden’s covid advisory team during the transition. “The American public is rightfully exhausted, and therefore the amount of risk we’re willing to take goes up. People are willing to take more risks and accept more challenges, but they’re not willing to accept more restrictions.”

Coronavirus variants like omicron, delta and mu are an expected part of the virus's life cycle, but vaccines can prevent more infectious variants from forming. (Video: John Farrell, Hadley Green/The Washington Post)

But he suggested that resistance to such limitations, which some European countries have begun to reimpose, carries its own dangers.

“How often do you hear people say, ‘I’m done with covid’? Well, your being done with it does not mean the pandemic is over,” Emanuel said.

The landscape could change as scientists learn more about omicron and how much protection the current vaccines provide against it. But public health officials, from White House staffers to county leaders, have shown little desire to once again impose disruptive measures, instead pushing Americans to voluntarily change their behavior without punitive threats.

Joe Kanter, Louisiana’s top public health official, was among those who, rather than proposing new restrictions, reiterated that Americans should get vaccinated.

“This deserves our attention but not yet panic,” Kanter said in an interview. “The greatest single tool we have is increasing vaccinations both at home and abroad. If people’s families are not yet fully vaccinated but eligible, now is the time to do it.”

And in some places, even if health officials did want to enact restrictions, their power to do so has been stripped as Republican governors, GOP-controlled legislatures and conservative state supreme courts have moved to curtail their powers.

The president gave his first formal update on the new ­variant Monday morning from the White House, stressing that it was “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic.”

He urged Americans to get vaccinated and, if eligible, to get a booster shot, saying medical experts believe that the coronavirus vaccines provide “at least some protection against the new variant and that boosters strengthen that protection significantly.”

Biden also encouraged Americans to wear a mask indoors and in crowded places, but said he does not expect the need for lockdowns or additional travel restrictions. “If people are vaccinated and wear their mask, there’s no need for lockdown,” he said.

The president said he would lay out a detailed strategy Thursday for how the United States will fight the virus over the winter. The plan, he said, would focus on increasing testing and vaccination rates.

Over the weekend, Biden restricted travel from southern African nations in an attempt to slow the spread of the new variant to the country, although health officials have said the omicron variant is probably already circulating in the United States.

Biden’s top aides have been clear recently — before omicron was detected, but as covid deaths in the country remained at about 1,000 a day — that stricter measures were not under consideration amid a persistent delta-driven wave. In the last week, covid-related hospitalizations have risen in states such as Ohio and Michigan, even as new cases and deaths dipped in the United States overall.

White House covid-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients was blunt when asked about lockdowns. “No, we are not headed in that direction,” he said last week.

As of Monday morning, the omicron variant had not been detected in the United States, though it had entered some European countries. While omicron has a high number of mutations that could suggest greater transmissibility, scientists have not yet determined how large a threat it poses.

Unlike the United States, other countries have been swift to impose population-wide restrictions because of the new variant.

Britain, which has a small number of confirmed omicron infections, reimposed its partial mask mandate after relaxing its rules over the summer. It will also require those entering the country to self-isolate pending the result of mandatory PCR coronavirus tests and will require people exposed to omicron to quarantine for 10 days.

“We need to buy time for our scientists to understand exactly what we are dealing with,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Saturday as he announced the new measures. The rules will be revisited in three weeks, he said.

For Biden, who is struggling with low approval ratings, any resurgence of coronavirus worries could further drag down his popularity and undercut a central promise of his presidency to restore the country to normalcy.

In the early summer, before the delta wave took hold, 89 percent of Americans said they thought the coronavirus situation was getting better, according to a Gallup poll. That figure plummeted in July and August.

But in late October, Americans were regaining some optimism about the pandemic, with a Gallup poll finding that 51 percent said the situation was getting better, up from 20 percent in September.

If there is a major resurgence of the pandemic, the political will for the harshest virus mitigation measures has largely evaporated even in the most liberal parts of the country, which have been the most open to restrictions, experts say.

Lori Tremmel Freeman, chief executive of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, said that there’s “little appetite” for widespread closures and that most local health agencies will hold off until getting more data on how omicron is different from delta before announcing any preventive measures.

“The patience of our communities is wearing thin,” Freeman said. “People are tired. People are just exhausted, having to cope with this time after time after time.” Still, she added, “We have to remain strong and diligent and still try to get people the information they need to understand what their risk is.”

Robert Wachter, who chairs the department of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, said that if omicron proves as dangerous as some health officials fear, there will probably be a more regional approach to restrictions, with places like California and East Coast states tightening rules while states in the Midwest and South take a more relaxed approach.

“There is a general zeitgeist in other parts of the country of ‘We’re over it,’ ” Wachter said. “Politicians are over it. . . . I think it’s going to sort itself by region and probably by political persuasion.”

In deep-blue New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) declared a state of emergency over the weekend though mid-January to allow the state to prepare for a coronavirus surge by purchasing additional supplies and letting hospitals postpone nonessential procedures.

But the weariness is evident even in such blue regions. And some Republicans are already suggesting that omicron is a fabrication.

“They are going to try and sell us new ‘Variants’ for the rest of our lives if we don’t tell them to shove it,” tweeted Kari Lake, a GOP candidate for governor in Arizona who is backed by former president Donald Trump.

Ronnie Jackson, the White House physician turned Republican member of Congress from Texas, also hinted at a conspiracy.

“Here comes the MEV — the Midterm Election Variant!” Jackson posted on his Twitter feed. “They NEED a reason to push unsolicited nationwide mail-in ballots. Democrats will do anything to CHEAT during an election — but we’re not going to let them!”

Some Republican officials have acted on the anti-lockdown sentiment. New laws in Kansas block state officials from closing businesses, for example. The Montana legislature prevented health officials from quarantining those exposed to the virus. North Dakota has passed a law barring health officials from issuing mask mandates, even in cases like an active tuberculosis outbreak.

And the supreme courts of Michigan, Wisconsin and Kentucky curtailed the ability of those states’ Democratic governors to implement emergency measures such as statewide mask mandates.

Freeman said potential spikes caused by delta or omicron will test the effect of the new laws.

“We are going to need to watch very closely and track whether legislation that has attempted to limit public health authority has in fact essentially tied the hands of public health officials from preventing the spread of disease when there’s a change in disease, like a variant,” Freeman said.

Over the weekend, state and local officials largely used the interest in the omicron variant to reiterate current restrictions rather than publicly discuss new ones.

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D) urged vigilance against the variant and said its emergence accentuated the urgency of getting vaccinated and wearing masks indoors. Connecticut does not have a mask mandate, but some cities, including New Haven, still do.

“This news of the Omicron variant reminds us about the importance of being vaccinated and getting a booster,” Lamont tweeted Sunday. “We have now entered the winter holiday season and still need to mask while in indoor public places, practice proper hand hygiene, get tested, and stay home if you feel sick.”

Kanter, Louisiana’s top public health official, said the state’s immediate priorities for responding to omicron are shoring up its genetic surveillance systems to detect the variant early and ensuring labs that can detect the omicron variant while conducting routine coronavirus tests are prepared to do so.

He said measures such as restoring an indoor mask mandate, imposed by Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) in response to the summer delta surge, are premature while scientists and health officials await additional information about the variant.

Scott Clement contributed to this report.