Opinion: Masking up for Omicron BA.5
It’s said that we Americans have short memories. We also have short attention spans. If so, we’re not alone. With rare exception, this seems to be a global phenomenon. And that’s been made clear during the past couple of years.
We’re also impatient. When we want something, we want it now. One of the most important values that led to the remarkable growth of the middle class during the mid- to late-twentieth century was delayed gratification. Educators and community leaders (perhaps even parents) told us that if we were to forego a full-time job, nice car, and fashionable clothes; spend four years in college, and keep our spending within our means, we’d be better off in the long run. As it turned out, for a large number of us, this was good advice.
As we entered the twenty-first century, with the digital revolution supplanting the industrial revolution, delayed gratification was replaced by instant gratification.
In 2020, a new form of upper-respiratory disease struck, and it killed millions of people. However, we knew how to protect ourselves from the virus, called COVID-19. Dr. Fauci told us over and over again to wear a face mask, wash our hands frequently, and avoid crowded public places. Some of us wore a mask once in a while; others wore it all the time when we were in public. But after a few weeks, people got impatient. We started putting pressure on public leaders to ease the regulations.
We worried about restaurants, bars, and other businesses having to close up shop for extended periods of time. And, public officials who may have been worried about keeping their jobs, caved in. They came up with ridiculous rules, like wearing a mask to enter or leave a restaurant. However, once seated, it was okay to remove it. They recommended wearing masks in commercial buildings, but did not require it. And, in places where masks were required, there was no method of enforcement.
The Yo-Yo Effect
Our impatience led to the Yo-Yo Effect. After a while, especially after the first vaccination became available and rates of infection and death declined, we were told that, if we had received vaccination, we no longer needed to wear our mask. A few months later, rates of infection predictably increased. We were told to wear our masks again. Rates of infection declined. Every few months, the pattern repeated itself.
Eventually, one truth emerged. No matter how many people got vaccinated, no matter how many people received their booster shots, no matter how many people got the infection and recovered — when we wore masks, infection rates declined. When we did not wear masks, those rates increased.
This yo-yoing of public behavior allowed the virus to remain active and mutate. We went through the Greek alphabet of COVID variants. Worldwide, we experienced Alpha through Mu. We skipped Nu for homophonic reasons and Xi for political considerations. Now, we’ve been bogged down in Omicron for more than half a year, currently dealing with a subvariant, known as Omicron BA.5.
The new reality
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the BA.5 subvariant now accounts for more than two-thirds of current cases in the United States. However, Dr. Ashish Jha, coordinator of the White House’s COVID-19 response team has stated, “We know how to manage it. We can prevent serious illness. We can save lives, and we can minimize disruptions caused” by it.
That is no revelation. We’ve known for at least a year and half how to do all that. It’s this simple. Get vaccinated. Get your booster shots. Wear a mask when in a public enclosed place. Wash your hands frequently. In other words, follow Dr. Fauci’s original advice.
So, why aren’t we doing those things? I think that too many people trust their own intuition rather than the science. They believe that the virus is fading away. After all, fewer people are dying each month. But, BA.5 is more infectious than any of the previous versions of the virus. And it has greater potential for a wider variety of mutations because it has evolved in a way that allows it to slip past the antibodies that most of us have developed.
The virus cannot live without a host. Depriving it of a host body is the only way at our disposal to make it die off. So, I’ll say this one last time: Get vaccinated and your booster shots. Wear your face mask when in enclosed public places. And, wash your hands well and frequently.
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Jim Glynn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.