The Time to Plan for Winter COVID Needs to Start Now

Way back at the true beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, that first full winter in the valley of the shadow of death, my most vivid memory is the political and social mayhem that erupted at the onset of the holiday season. It seemed as if nobody in positions of power had thought about families gathering for Thanksgiving and Christmas until that November, and the resulting chaos — in my opinion, anyway — is when this whole calamity first became hopelessly politicized.

Bloviators on the right began howling about religious freedom, as this crisis dovetailed perfectly with restrictions being placed on houses of worship in order to curtail the spread of the virus. Limits on the size of family holiday gatherings were naturally next, but with such short notice, the emotional trauma was immediate and, within the larger context, entirely unwelcome. Failing to prepare for the holiday season wrought terrible consequences, including a body count in the thousands.

It’s an 80-degree July day, the last day anyone wants to start thinking about Christmas plans… but think about it we must, because COVID Winter 3.0 is not all that far off at all, and it threatens to bring with it a new wave of a COVID variant — BA.5 — unlike any we have seen to date.

Omicron variant BA.5 is being described by scientists as “the worst version of the virus that we’ve seen.” It is now the dominant strain in the U.S., suspected of having caused some 54 percent of current infections. (There were more than 107,000 new infections yesterday, a 14-day increase of 8 percent.) “Along with twin variant BA.4,” reports Fortune, “it swept South Africa this spring thanks to its ability to evade immunity from both prior infection and vaccination.”

The good news: BA.5 does not seem to go for the lungs with the gusto of prior iterations, apparently making it less lethal. Infections are infections, however, and the more that happen translates into new and potentially more lethal variants. If we have not learned this lesson yet, I despair to think we ever will.

The very bad news: Winter is coming, and millions who can be vaccinated still refuse the shots. We are wide open for another horrific spike in infections that could overwhelm our already-tattered health care “system” and the professionals who are holding it together with gauze and good intentions. There were terrible infection spikes after the last two holiday seasons. The time to start game-planning for the next one is now.

Planning, you say? What is this “planning”? This is the United States! We don’t plan. We pretend things are better than they are, and if they don’t get better, we find ourselves subsumed in right-wing political shoutfests over trans kids, immigrants, which books are best to burn and what’s on Hunter Biden’s laptop. The Democratic side of things isn’t much better, as The New York Times explains:

President Biden’s request for $22.5 million in emergency coronavirus aid to bolster the nation’s supply of coronavirus tests, vaccines and treatments, which stalled for months amid objections from both parties, is now the subject of Democratic infighting and finger-pointing on Capitol Hill. Senate Democrats say they are waiting for the House to take up legislation, while House Democrats say the next move is up to the Senate.

It has been three months since Mr. Biden’s request for additional aid collapsed after some Democrats balked at the plan for covering the cost. After that, Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, stepped in to negotiate a $10 billion aid package. But Republicans held up the measure, and Mr. Romney has since backed away from it, amid his own irritation with the White House. Now, Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi each say the other is responsible for pushing the bill forward.

Beyond the bog-standard basic stuff needed to combat COVID — an actual testing regimen would be nice after three years, I think — that is being fumbled by the vapid “leadership” in Congress are a number of other crises that threaten to explode without proper attention. The public health emergency declared by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is set to expire on July 15. That’s the end of next week, for those of you playing along at home. If the declaration is not renewed, millions of people could lose their health insurance overnight.

I was gladdened to see The Washington Post’s editorial board echoing my concerns in yesterday’s paper. “The pandemic is a relentless race against Mother Nature,” they wrote. “Waves of infection took millions of lives, and only highly effective vaccines prevented even more deaths. Now, the coronavirus is speeding up once again, mutating, evading immunity and still on the march. The arrival of subvariant BA.5 should be a reminder that the finish line in this race is nowhere to be seen.”

Legendary sportscaster Dan Patrick would often say of a superior athlete, “You can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him.” The same is true for COVID Omicron variant BA.5. We lost our chance to stop any of this in the bonfire of incompetence that was Donald Trump’s last year in office. The best we can hope for now is containment, which requires immediate action on multiple fronts.

Re-up the HHS public health emergency declaration before next week comes and goes. The president needs to get Congress out of its own way and make them pass new funding for the basics: Testing, treatment and vaccines. No “atta-boy” cheerleading from the sidelines; it’s time for the White House to finally get loud.

Last but certainly not least: The time to start making holiday plans is now, in the heat of July. Expect the worst, and do what you can to make the best of it. After Halloween, it will be too late again to do anything but get worked by the circumstances. Work the circumstances now, and there might actually be something to celebrate.