Cold weather is driving more Americans indoors. The holiday season has prompted a wave of travel, generating new lines of covid transmission. And the delta variant is pushing up hospitalizations.
Now, adding to the potentially bad news, an ominous new variant has emerged: omicron.
But after nearly 21 months of covid-19 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 Joe 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.”
But he suggested that a 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 take 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 state legislatures and conservative state supreme courts have moved to curtail their powers.
The president gave his first formal update about 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 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 anticipate 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 by about 5%, even as new cases and deaths dipped.
Asked last week whether the United States would consider European-style lockdowns, White House press secretary Jen Psaki demurred. “Our process and our focus continues to be getting more Americans vaccinated,” Psaki said.
White House covid-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients was more blunt when asked about lockdowns. “No, we are not headed in that direction,” Zients 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 who enter 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 covid 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% 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 had been regaining some optimism about the pandemic, with a Gallup poll finding that 51% said the situation was getting better, up from 20% 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.
“The threshold to shut things down is going to be much higher than it was,” said Robert Wachter, who chairs the Department of Medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. “One of the durable takeaway lessons is that the closing of schools is really a terrible thing to do and should be avoided at all costs.”
Wachter 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 covid surge by purchasing additional supplies and letting hospitals postpone nonessential procedures.
But the weariness is evident even in such blue regions. And some Republicans were 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 GOP 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 state laws in Kansas block state officials from closing businesses, for example. The Montana legislature prevented health officials from quarantining those exposed to the virus. And North Dakota has passed a law barring health officials from issuing mask mandates, even in cases like an active tuberculosis outbreak.
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.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, R, recently signed legislation banning government mask mandates in most situations as well as vaccine mandates, and he allowed another bill stripping local public health authorities of emergency powers to become law without his signature.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, R, called a special session and signed legislation this month to block efforts to control the virus, including a prohibition on employer vaccine mandates and school boards issuing mask mandates or quarantining students who have been exposed to the virus.
The new laws follow measures to prohibit localities from mandating masks or fining businesses that violate covid restrictions, which some county officials said undermined their ability to respond to a summer surge that led to record hospitalizations, infections and deaths.
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 vaccinations and wearing masks indoors. Connecticut does not have a mask mandate, but some towns, 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.”
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, D, received a booster shot Sunday and encouraged others to follow his lead. “The best way to strengthen your protection against covid-19 is to get your booster shot,” he tweeted, with a photo of himself receiving a shot.
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 to ensure that labs that can detect the omicron variant while conducting routine coronavirus tests are prepared to do so.
He said social distancing 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.
A previous variant, detected in South Africa before it was found in Louisiana, ended up not being concerning because it was not highly transmissible, Kanter said, even though early data suggested it might be resistant to vaccines or therapeutics.
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The Washington Post’s Scott Clement contributed to this report.