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Unease About Possible New COVID Surge Grows With Rise of BA.2 Variant

If BA.2 or another variant like it attacks with full force, our current “live with it” posture will leave us unprepared.

A person walks past a COVID-19 testing location in Arlington, Virginia, on March 16, 2022.

Looking at the headlines this morning, you’d think COVID was all over. Sure, The New York Times tells us almost 30,000 new infections and more than a thousand deaths were recorded yesterday, but they do that every day now. The infection number is 33 percent lower than last week’s, a number with dual meanings: Be cheered by the decrease, and be shaken by how high the number is anyway, how high it’s been and for how long.

In truth, the only thing that’s really “over” with COVID is the wall-to-wall news coverage. It’s not over for the millions suffering from the multifaceted “long COVID,” which can linger for months in a variety of debilitating forms. It’s not over for the millions more whose health conditions force them to live in fear of the virus even after vaccination.

Kick over a few media rocks, and the “stealth variant” BA.2 comes crawling out into the daylight.

NBC’s local New York City channel 4, on Saturday: “Rising COVID infections associated with the so-called “stealth” omicron variant BA.2 are fueling fresh leeriness about the state of the pandemic in New York City and America, just as life as we now know it is starting to return to normal. According to the CDC, that variant accounts for 39% of COVID circulating in New York and New Jersey right now. By comparison, it’s responsible for about a quarter of new infections nationally. Its prevalence has doubled in just the last week or so.”

USA Today, also this weekend: “A new COVID variant is spreading across Pennsylvania, data released last week shows. In the past month, the BA.2 variant has gone from 3% of cases sequenced to more than 20%, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

Both articles are at pains to explain that we don’t yet know enough about BA.2 to adequately assess its menace at this time, but they go on to suggest it’s probably nothing to worry about right now. As with Delta and Omicron, no new precautions are being instituted; indeed, mask mandates and other protections are disappearing all across the country. Yet even after the twin debacle brought by those variants, the news seems resolutely determined to hold to a positive outlook as we watch the approach of this newest one, the first true test of the “living with the virus” method that capitalism has craved for two years now.

No lesser light than COVID expert Anthony Fauci popped up this weekend to join in the assurances, according to the Times:

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the Biden administration’s top adviser on the pandemic, predicted on Sunday an “uptick” in coronavirus infections similar to the current increase in Europe, despite the current decline in cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the United States…. While anticipating a new rise, Dr. Fauci said that at this time he does not expect a surge. Still, the BA.2 subvariant has been shown to be a more contagious version of the Omicron variant, though it, too, causes less-severe illness in most people. Epidemiologists have said the current lull in U.S. cases mirrors the dip that Europe enjoyed before many officials in the region relaxed restrictions like indoor masking.

If Fauci proclaimed water to be wet, a segment of the population would drown in the local bog trying to prove him wrong. This is a fact of modern politics — the vast temptations of conspiratorial fictions over the long grind of scientific truth. Fauci has offered a level voice and a steady hand, for the most part, which is nothing short of remarkable given how often Donald Trump lit Fauci’s podium on fire with his cascading failure of an approach to the pandemic.

Not everyone who believes in Fauci is fully accepting of his prediction that the variant will merely cause an “uptick” instead of a “surge,” however. Benjamin Mueller of the New York Times reports that “scientists and health officials are bracing for another swell in the pandemic and, with it, the first major test of the country’s strategy of living with the virus while limiting its impact,” adding:

The clearest warnings that the brief period of quiet may soon be over have come, as they often have in the past two years, from Western Europe. In a number of countries, including Britain, France and Germany, case numbers are climbing as an even more contagious subvariant of Omicron, known as BA.2, takes hold. In interviews, 10 epidemiologists and infectious disease experts said that many of the ingredients were in place for the same to happen in the United States, though it was unclear if or when a wave might hit or how severe it might be.

If/when BA.2 or another variant like it attacks with full force and causes yet another devastating round of deaths and economic hardships, our current “live with it” posture has left us thoroughly unprepared, again. This is particularly true after Congress cut $1.6 billion in COVID funding, to catastrophic effect:

Next week, the government will have to cut shipments of monoclonal-antibody treatments by a third. In April, it will no longer be able to reimburse health-care providers for testing, vaccinating, or treating millions of uninsured Americans, who are disproportionately likely to be unvaccinated and infected. Come June, it won’t be able to support domestic testing manufacturers.

It can’t buy extra doses of antiviral pills or infection-preventing treatments that immunocompromised people are banking on but were already struggling to get. It will need to scale back its efforts to improve vaccination rates in poor countries, which increases the odds that dangerous new variants will arise.

If such variants arise, they’ll likely catch the U.S. off guard, because surveillance networks will have to be scaled back too. Should people need further booster shots, the government won’t have enough for everyone.

Republicans believe they have gained the upper hand in the rhetorical fight surrounding COVID, particularly in regard to money allocated to fight the disease. To their minds, the country’s “So over it, you guys” mood is worth hanging their overall COVID strategy on.

We shall see, one way or the other, and that soon. “I think we’ve learned at this point to not underestimate what kind of sort of evolutionary leaps this virus can make,” University of Utah virologist Stephen Goldstein told Grid. “We should be pretty humble about making predictions about what’s next.”

That cuts both ways, doesn’t it. Like a hot knife. Keep your eyes open, and don’t toss those masks just yet.

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