Welcome to 2022! The last week has seen a dizzying onslaught of new and apparently conflicting news about COVID-19. On one hand, national and local cases have reached record levels. Yet at the same time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is relaxing national isolation and quarantine guidelines, and we have allowed our local mask mandate to expire.
How can both of those things be happening at the same time? What happened to our strong local pandemic response? Is COVID getting better or worse? Do I need to worry, or is it time to relax and move on?
These are all perfectly reasonable questions, and the answer, as is often the case in science, is somewhere in the middle.
COVID cases are rising at a heretofore unseen pace coinciding with the arrival of the omicron variant, a new and incredibly contagious form of the virus.
Around the globe, omicron has become the dominant cause of COVID infections at a lightning pace, leading to record case incidence. Vaccinated, boosted people can still get omicron.
However, while cases are up over 300% nationally compared to two weeks ago, hospitalizations are up only about 33%. COVID deaths have decreased by 4% nationally in the last two weeks. These are hugely significant facts.
Yes, omicron can still cause serious illness, especially in the unvaccinated or otherwise vulnerable. It is not accurate to say, as some have suggested, that case rates and hospitalization rates have been “uncoupled.” Contracting COVID has been and always will be a prerequisite for progressing to severe COVID infection. However, the risk of making that progression appears to be substantially decreased for most people in our community.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, White House COVID advisor, said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” “As you get further on and the infections become less severe, it is much more relevant to focus on the hospitalizations as opposed to the total number of cases.”
COVID hospitalizations in Teton County have remained low, and recently the majority of those hospitalized have been unvaccinated, non-Teton County residents.
This puts us in a very different situation than in March 2020. We are here because of a persistent, cohesive community effort, high vaccination rates, many natural infections, new and improved treatments, and what appears to be a milder viral strain.
Early in the pandemic, aggressive emergency public health measures were both justified and effective. In late spring of 2020 they allowed Teton County to achieve true “COVID-zero” and effectively reopen our economy, which has since boomed. Unfortunately, the rest of the world did not eliminate COVID, and it has since been reintroduced here continuously.
With the “second wave” of COVID in the summer of 2020 we initiated mandatory masking. Scientific evidence by then (and accumulating since then) demonstrated that masks can be an effective tool in preventing the spread of this virus. That and other community efforts have likely helped to keep Teton County’s COVID death toll remarkably low compared with that of the rest of our region.
Clearly, the Dec. 31 expiration of our local mask mandate (as set in August) was not ideal given that our seven-day average case incidence reached a record high on Dec. 29. But while masks themselves remain important, mask mandates have diminishing returns over time. As anyone who engages in our community might have observed, even prior to the mandate’s expiration, people who want to wear masks do so, and those who don’t, don’t.
Masks have taken on tremendous symbolic meaning apart from their health value. Aside from the American flag, I can’t imagine a more symbolically significant or emotionally charged piece of cloth in our nation today. While the flag unifies us, masks have come to divide us.
While wearing a mask remains absolutely justified, emergency public health mandates to do so are not — at least not at a time when our inpatient health care system has capacity and people are not dying.
Although not mandating it, my Teton County Health Department colleagues and I continue to strongly recommend masking in indoor public places.
In the spectrum of COVID severity, “mild” is a relative term. Many people feel lousy with presumed omicron. While they may not wind up in the hospital, they may certainly find themselves bedridden and therefore not only should not but cannot go to work. Local businesses are feeling that strain already. Requesting or requiring masks as their own policy might be a way to keep the doors open. Anecdotally, I’ve heard from some local small businesses that patrons are more responsive to a masking request from a business owner than a requirement from government.
We now find ourselves in yet another new phase of this prolonged pandemic. We must remain thoughtful, flexible and, above all, compassionate toward those around us.