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These days, as Slate says, "it feels like everyone has COVID right now." (Or, The Atlantic adds: "No, like, EVERYONE has COVID right now.") Cases and hospitalizations are up over the last two weeks, and dramatically so. As winter has descended, there's been a new wave of writers and media personalities telling their own personal stories of hemming and hawing over whether they should have gone to that friends' wedding or remarking on how many of their friends have tested positive in just the last few days. A shockingly high percentage of NBA players are currently in COVID protocols.
I'll add my own anecdote onto the pile: after going all pandemic without having a single known exposure to COVID, I made it all the way to this month before I got my first "contact tracing" call. I had to go to four different drugstores to find a home test in-stock, and the sad state of access to cheap and effective home tests in the U.S. compared to the rest of the world is pretty shameful. I tested negative and was fine. I'm vaccinated and my main worry about getting COVID would be inadvertently passing it to someone who is more at-risk or vulnerable.
But after being lucky for a very long time and avoiding exposure and infection, it is now clear that for each and every one of us, our luck will eventually run out.
We are entering a new phase of the COVID-19 struggle driven by the start of winter paired with the Omicron variant, though it remains very unclear what Omicron really means for us. In my hometown of Orlando, FL, analysis of wastewater shows Omicron making up an enormous quantity of the COVID-19 virus in circulation, though it also accounts for extremely few cases in Orlando hospitals. In South Africa, Omicron tore through Gauteng province but has already begun to fall off a cliff - with little evidence of any big increase in hospitalizations or deaths as a result of the wave.
That doesn't mean things don't have a chance of getting ugly. The very limited data coming out of the UK paints a grimmer picture of the impact of Omicron and likens it more to Delta. There's evidence that Omicron replicates much much faster, though blessedly not in the lungs. There are also all of the regularly scheduled maladies like colds and the flu that are lurking out there, waiting for all of us to head inside for the winter. It can't be a coincidence that the warmest states saw their big COVID waves during the summer (when it is too hot to be outside) and now the upper Midwest and Northeast are getting slammed, relatively speaking (when it is too cold to be outside).
Regardless, what we do have is evidence that Americans are increasingly fatigued with being in a state of constant alarm. As Monmouth's new poll headline this week put it clearly: MOST AMERICANS "WORN OUT" BY COVID.
Omicron has not yet driven any uptick in American voters' concerns about COVID. In my latest Echelon Insights polling released just days ago, concern about getting infected with COVID has been moderate but unchanged since October. More people believe that "the worst is behind us" (41%) than "the worst is yet to come" (36%), though a very large number (23%) are simply unsure what they think. Support for vaccine mandates is still a majority view, but has become softer and weaker since August.
Trust in scientific authorities has fallen during COVID and increasingly, people are frustrated to discover that restrictions we have lived under - like requiring little kids to wear masks on the playground, something almost no other countries on the planet do - aren't as rooted in good science as advertised. Support for things like mask mandates and requiring people to show proof of vaccination to go about their day has been slipping gradually.
We also see massive increases in the percentage of Americans who say they intend to gather indoors with friends and family or shop in brick-and-mortar stores this year relative to last year. And it isn't just Republicans - the partisan differences on this matter are relatively small.
Where there are some partisan differences are around whether we should continue to treat COVID-19 as an emergency worthy of extraordinary measures until we stamp it out, or if we need to accept it as an endemic problem akin to the flu. Most Americans - including two thirds of Republicans and six-in-ten Independents - say: we don't think we are ever getting to COVID zero, so let's learn to live with it.
The idea that if we all just spent a few more weeks hunkered down, "fifteen days to slow the spread" and all that, we can just beat this thing once and for all is increasingly viewed as nonsense. Even New Zealand, a literal island that is extremely remote from most of the world's population, has finally abandoned the idea that COVID can be eradicated within its borders. If New Zealand can't stamp it out, the rest of us don't stand a chance.
We don't shut down restaurants or cancel parties or close schools because the flu exists. And while the "it's just the flu!" cries from those who initially dismissed COVID were very wrong, thankfully with the availability of vaccines the risk COVID poses to the vast majority of people these days is more akin to the flu. Omicron is still an unknown of course, but by and large, Americans are more focused on how we can live with COVID rather than trying to create a world without it.
A bare majority of Democrats in that Echelon poll still think we can whittle COVID down to just a handful of cases. Deep-blue America is likely to respond to Omicron by reinstating tough lockdown and mandate policies of the sort that Americans have increasingly become weary. (Good luck forcing people to wear masks in their own private homes, Santa Cruz County, California.) But even four-in-ten Democrats say it is time to pivot our approach.
Most Americans are not living as if COVID does not exist at all. Most, according to Axios/Ipsos polling, believe that completely ignoring COVID brings risks with it. But cancelling Christmas, locking back down, closing schools and so on are not considered acceptable responses in the minds of most Americans. Better for us to begin finding ways to responsibly live with COVID for the long-haul.
Thanks again for being a reader of Codebook. What do you think Omicron will mean for this winter? Hop to the comments to start the discussion.
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(Cover Photo Credit: Morsa Images/Getty Images)