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

Looking at the headlines this morning, you’d think COVID was all over. Sure, The New York TimesThey have almost 30,000 new infections and over a thousand deaths yesterday. But they do this every day. 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’sNew York City local channel 4, on Saturday: “Rising COVID infections associated with the so-called “stealth” omicron variant BA.2 is provoking new leery about the state pandemic in New York City, America, at a time when life as we know it is returning to normal. According to the CDC this variant accounts for 39% COVID circulating right now in New York and New Jersey. 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 TodayAlso see 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. No new precautions are being taken, just like Omicron and Delta. In fact, protections such as mask mandates and other protections across the country are disappearing. 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.

Anthony Fauci, COVID expert, popped up this weekend for 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…. Although Dr. Fauci anticipates a new rise in coronavirus infections, he said that he doesn’t expect a sudden increase. The Omicron subvariant, BA.2, has been found to be more contagious than the Omicron variant. However, it causes less severe illness in most people. According to epidemiologists, the current dip in U.S. cases mirrors that of Europe before many officials in the region relaxed restrictions such as indoor masking.

Fauci would declare water to be “wet” and a large portion of the population would drown 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:

As they have done in the past two decades, the clearest warnings that the brief time of quiet may soon end have come from Western Europe. As the Omicron subvariant known as BA.2, which is even more contagious, begins to take root in many countries, including Germany and France, the number of cases is increasing. Interviews with 10 epidemiologists, infectious disease experts, and 10 others revealed that many of the necessary ingredients were present for the same to occur in the United States. It was not known when or how severe the wave might hit.

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 especially true after Congress cut $1.6 Billion in COVID funding. to catastrophic effect:

Next week, the government must reduce monoclonal antibody treatment shipments by a third. It will be unable to reimburse health-care providers for testing or vaccinating millions of uninsured Americans. This is because they are more likely to be unvaccinated or infected than others. 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 have to reduce its efforts to improve vaccination rates for poor countries, which increases the likelihood of dangerous new variants.

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 the upper hand in the rhetorical battle surrounding COVID, especially in relation 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 will soon find out, one way or another. “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.