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Mask Mandates Lift While Uncertainty About New Subvariant BA.2 Hangs in the Air

For millions of immunocompromised people, this national shrug is as infuriating as it is potentially lethal.

A respiratory therapist checks on a COVID-19 patient in the ICU at Rush University Medial Center on January 31, 2022, in Chicago, Illinois.

As the world crouches in anticipation of whatever fresh hell is preparing to jump from the Russia/Ukraine border, some seem to have forgotten that COVID-19 is not yet over. There have been more than 28,000 COVID deaths in the U.S. over the last two weeks, and more than 1.2 million new infections over that same span. The fact that this represents significant progress in the fight against the virus only underscores the horror of the body count. Were this pandemic a shooting war, those numbers would be bluntly unendurable.

In November 2020, still early on in the pandemic, Atlantic writer Uri Friedman wrote a penetrating article about the concept of national strength within the context of the crisis. For generations, he explained, the measurement of national strength came down to a number of distinct categories: Military power, economic health, food security and more recently cybersecurity, all are ways we have historically judged our national standing. To this, Friedman proffered an additional metric, one aptly suited for the times: national resiliency.

“And the new era ushered in by COVID-19 has done so as well,” writes Friedman, “revealing the salience of ‘resilient power’: a country’s capacity to absorb systemic shocks, adapt to these disruptions, and quickly bounce back from them. As the scholar Stephen Flynn once told me, the aim of resilience is to design systems not just so they can endure shocks, but also so they can ‘fail gracefully and recover nicely’…. And right now, it’s a measure of power where the United States is clearly falling short.”

That was written 16 months ago, and every day of that ghastly run of months has seen this country, in one way or another, fail Friedman’s resiliency test. A segment of the population has abandoned all pretense of care for neighbors and family, and embraced a confounding new anti-mask/anti-vaccine movement that vexes logic to dust. Among many of the rest, a boiling sense of exhausted resentment runs free, dangerously so. After two long, patient years, even the most formidable COVID warriors are flying on the vapor left in their gas tank.

Plus, of course, there is the klaxon scream of capitalism ordering all and sundry to walk over the bones of nearly a million dead and get back to work. The economy is more important than the people who constitute and sustain it, you see? No workers outweigh the value, nay authority, of the places they work. If the wealthiest among us are not making money every minute of the day, the fundamental pillagers’ imperative that undergirds our national mythology goes unfulfilled. Perish the thought.

If I sound as if I am laying judgment on people, I’m not. Well, mostly. I’m deep in the soup along with the worst of them/us, and I can easily see this “revolution” against science and common sense has its roots in fear, uncertainty and a sense of deep betrayal. Seeking solace and guidance from the loudest tough-guy voice in the room makes similar sense: Flocking to strength when threatened is as old as the birds in the sky.

Yet all the empathy and understanding in the world cannot wash away the glaring fact that, as a country, we have failed the resiliency test in grotesque fashion. COVID did not break America; it has kicked America, hard, in all the broken places, and watched as so much came tumbling down.

Three of the major cruise line companies — Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian — will be downgrading their on-board mask mandates to “recommended but not required.” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is about to lift all mask mandates in England. Here at home, masks have become a dwindling sight as people try to transition — tentatively yet inexorably — back into what they remember to be a “normal life.”

This isn’t entirely without reason, either. Two years is a long time to ask anyone to live in a box. While the country has fallen badly short on total vaccination, the vaccines have done a stellar job of knocking back the mortality rate, even in the face of variants like Delta and Omicron. Indeed, new data strongly suggests that if you get the two shots and the booster, you may not have to get any new shots for months, if not years. At this moment, people are generally safer than they have been since early last summer.

And that’s the rub, isn’t it? What happened last summer and fall: Delta, and then Omicron, and a hot ticket straight back to where we started. That’s when the exhaustion and inchoate rage really began to manifest itself, the moment when our national resilience — our ability to take a punch — went a big wobbly one… and we are still wobbling, like a boxer with a bump on his head and ball bearings in his ankles, asleep in our shoes.

For millions of immunocompromised people — those fighting cancer or dealing with MS, for example — this national shrug is as infuriating as it is potentially lethal. “People with weakened immune systems or other high-risk conditions argue that now is the time, as the omicron surge subsides, to double down on policies that protect vulnerable Americans like them,” reports Victoria Knight for KHN. “‘The pandemic isn’t over,’ said Matthew Cortland, a senior fellow working on disability and health care for Data for Progress, who is chronically ill and immunocompromised. ‘There is no reason to believe that another variant won’t emerge.’”

…and, as if on cue, another new subvariant is on the rise, this one a child of Omicron called — until they, perhaps, give it its own Greek letter — BA.2. NPR explains:

As the omicron surge continues to decline in the U.S., infectious disease experts are keeping a close eye on an even more contagious version of the variant that could once again foil the nation’s hopes of getting back to normal. The virus, known as BA.2, is a strain of the highly contagious omicron variant that appears to spread even more easily — about 30% more easily.

BA.2 has now been found from coast to coast and accounts for an estimated 3.9% all new infections nationally, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It appears to be doubling fast. “If it doubles again to 8%, that means we’re into the exponential growth phase and we may be staring at another wave of COVID-19 coming in the U.S.,” says Samuel Scarpino, the manager director of pathogen surveillance at the Rockefeller Foundation. “And that’s of course the one we’re really worried about. We’re all on the edge of our seats,” he says.

Maybe BA.2 will come to be a menace, and maybe it will sink back into the COVID waters like other mutations of its kind. The point is this: You can unmask on your cruise or party like Boris, you can simply hope for the best like all those Democratic governors who couldn’t wait to lift COVID protections during an election year, you can pretend immunocompromised people are not your problem as you la-la-la-la-la your way past this particular graveyard.

In the end, the graveyard wins. So, for now, does COVID. If BA.2 comes to nothing, it still serves as a vivid warning that the variants can come at any time and from any direction. If it gets serious, we will all get to test our resilience again. Maybe, the fourth time around, we might get it right.