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Omicron Sweeps Through

Current recommendations call for the use of N95 masks, like the one worn by this temperature checker at a NASA rocket launch.
Photo NASA

One million: the staggering number of cases the United States reported at the start of the year, a milestone which has never been recorded so far in the now two-year-long COVID-19 pandemic. Florida is averaging nearly 60,000 cases a day, according to the New York Times. While the uptick in cases is largely as a result of reporting delays over the New Year’s weekend, the transmissibility of the new omicron variant has also been blamed for the rise.

Omicron, named after the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet, follows the deadly variant delta as well as a number of variants of concern which are tracked and designated by the World Health Organization (WHO).

According to WHO, initial reports indicate that the omicron variant is more transmissible but possibly less deadly than previous variants. However, experts are still advising caution. Breakthrough infections are on the rise, and the risk of death is still present.

Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the doctor in charge of WHO’s response to COVID-19, said that the new variant “can [still] affect vulnerable populations” such as the elderly and immunocompromised on an episode of WHO’s podcast Science in 5. 

President Joe Biden called on Americans to stem the tide of new infections by getting vaccinated and receiving booster shots in a statement issued before the holidays, a message which has been consistent since his taking office last January. He has also pushed masking in public places, in line with recommendations from top health officials.

“The unvaccinated have a significantly higher risk of ending up in a hospital or even dying,” Mr. Biden said in statements on Dec. 21. “Wearing a mask provides extra protection for you and those around you.”

In terms of actions, however, the administration has clearly favored vaccination as a mitigation tactic over masking and testing, to the chagrin of Mr. Biden’s advisors on COVID-19 during his period as president-elect. Drs. Ezekiel Emanuel, Michael Osterholm, and Celine Gounder published an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association advocating coming to peace with COVID-19 becoming endemic and adopting a new strategy to counter respiratory diseases in general.

“The ‘new normal’ requires recognizing that SARS-CoV-2 is but one of several circulating respiratory viruses that include influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and more. COVID-19 must now be considered among the risks posed by all respiratory viral illnesses combined,” the authors of the editorial, published Jan. 6, wrote.

Mr. Biden was skeptical regarding the difficulty of countering COVID-19. “Having COVID here in the environment and in the world is probably here to stay but COVID, as we’re dealing with it now, is not here to stay. The new normal doesn’t have to be,” President Biden countered in remarks to reporters Jan. 7.

The administration has come under fire for the decision by the CDC to recommend only a five-day quarantine for people who test positive for COVID-19 and have no or only minor symptoms, but officials have largely turned their attention to visible measures of prevention.

Official recommendations continue to recommend the usage of masks, particularly the standardized N95 masks, as well as the equivalent KN95 and KF94 masks. The government is also funding four free at-home tests per household, orderable through a website that launched Jan. 19

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