Throughout the pandemic, the CDC has faced criticisms ranging from professional medical doctors to far-right freedom-fighters fully still convinced that they are invincible from covid (or that it doesn’t exist). However, unlike with previous covid surges, the rise of omicron has not been met with the necessary preparedness and set of guidelines needed to avert covid tragedies. This failure has deteriorated the already limited public trust government health officials have which will make future covid variants or pandemics more difficult to contain.
For much of my coverage of the pandemic, I avoided bashing the CDC as I felt like their guidance was usually in the right direction. When the mask recommendation for the fully vaccinated was dropped last year, the CDC faced skepticism and some even accused the decision of being politically motivated. However, the removal of masks did not cause an extreme covid surge. It provided a valuable return to normality that many vaccinated Americans (including me) appreciated. It felt like we were finally rewarded for our cooperative effort to end the pandemic.
But, of course, the more contagious delta variant become the dominant strain of covid in the United States, and along with it came the return of covid restrictions. But the message was still clear: if you are vaccinated, you have little to worry about. Vaccines provided almost complete protection against hospitalization and while breakthrough cases occurred more often, they were not common.
Then omicron came—and it came fast. It became the dominant strain of covid in the US in just a few weeks due to its extreme transmissibility. Breakthrough infections have become commonplace; while the vaccinated are still protected from the variant, they can easily spread it too. While the illness itself is not as deadly, it still poses a serious risk to those who are vulnerable and the sheer number of people infected has already begun overwhelming hospitals again.
While omicron produced a unique challenge, it was not met with a clear, rapid response from the CDC, even though the department had over a month to prepare. Getting the booster shot is one of the best things we can do right now to protect ourselves, but it did not help for countless medical professionals to argue against public access to booster shots months before omicron broke out (this bickering amongst medical professionals and officials managed to temporarily convince my father that he did not need a booster). Some states, such as California, even went ahead before the CDC and approved booster shots early. I was not even aware of this until I went into CVS for my annual flu shot, where an employee told me that I am eligible for a covid booster as well.
The general lack of preparedness for a new variant has also contributed to the chaotic outbreak. While the omicron wave is not like March 2020, the unprecedented amount of infections has caused severe staff shortages at schools, government facilities, and other necessary departments. Masks guidelines have silently but dramatically changed, deeming ordinary cloth masks to be insufficient. The problem is that the necessary masks are in short supply, making them unaffordable for many Americans. There are also many counterfeit KN95 masks as well, only adding to the disorganization of our government’s response.
The newly updated CDC isolation guidelines are confusing as well. It instructs those who have tested positive to isolate for just five days and to not even test again to make sure your viral load is low enough. It also confusingly states that if you do choose to take a rapid test after your five-day isolation, to then continue isolating for another five days, effectively ruining any incentive to get tested again.
So with such confusing messaging and plenty of disagreement about current covid guidelines, what is the best thing we can do?
Although the omicron cases are skyrocketing, the tsunami wave of cases is expected to quickly crash down. Omicron cases in South Africa, where the variant was first identified, rapidly declined after a few weeks of a dramatic surge. It is expected that omicron will face a similar fate in the United States. This is why schools, universities, and government facilities have decided to go remote for a few weeks to a month. It is a reminder of the events that occurred in March 2020, but the alternative is much worse. Even though omicron may not be as severe as previous variants, it is still capable of making even the vaccinated feel sick. If there was a cold or flu that was as transmissible as omicron, many people would still be calling out of work.
Unfortunately, many establishments (especially schools) have been resistant to going virtual. At schools, this has led to countless teachers contracting covid which has forced them to stay home, rendering in-person instruction more ineffective than online learning. At my sister’s (and my previous) high school, more than half of all students are missing and dozens of teachers had to isolate due to contracting covid. This has infected entire departments, meaning some classes do not have any instructors.
There is also a viral Reddit post by a high school student in New York explaining an even more disastrous covid response from their school. The picture is career: remote learning sucks, but the alternative is even worse.
In conclusion, any business/school/service that is reasonably capable of going remote should do so. Get your vaccine/booster shot if you haven’t already. Wear an approved mask (KN95, N95, etc). If you do catch covid, isolate for a least five to ten days and ideally get tested again before you quit isolation. While omicron is a little disheartening, it could have been much worse. There is also plenty of promising developments such as the covid pill and super vaccine that may be able to prevent covid from becoming endemic.
The CDC has fallen short of providing the clear preparedness, guidance, and leadership necessary to handle a pandemic. Although the consequences for such inaction may not be so bad now, it raises the question: How prepared are we for the next covid variant or pandemic?
Title Image Credit: Aïda Amer/Axios