the Variable Omicron It spreads so quickly and generally causes such a mild form of the disease in the vaccinated population that countries tolerate Covid-19 outbreaks more, voluntarily allowing infections to swell to levels that not long ago would have constituted public health crises.
From different starting points, authorities in North America, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific region are moving in the same direction, offering a glimpse into a future in which the pandemic crisis becomes a fact of daily life, like seasonal flu.
Health officials everywhere, many for the first time, are giving up some of the most powerful tools they have to combat Omicron — even as infection rates rise. They have let the virus in like never before to reduce disruptions to the economy, education and daily life.
Mortality and hospitalization rates are rising to high levels in many countries, and in some countries, hospitals are overwhelmed. But vaccines have made the disease less deadly, and treatments give greater promise of cure for those who are sick and seriously ill. This improved view, combined with the fact that measures taken to contain early mutations of the virus are not working well against the more contagious Omicron, is to inform decision makers of the decision to abandon restrictive steps aimed at containment.
It’s a major turning point in a pandemic approaching a third year. Public health authorities have long advocated flattening infection curves and taking personal responsibility for social distancing, face masks, and vaccination. Now the Omicron variant is seen so transmissible that even the harshest and most economically damaging lockdowns are unlikely to prevent the virus from getting out.
This assessment forces a recalculation by health officials about what could – and should – constitute a success. “Governments don’t want to be accused of being slow to relax any longer,” said Teo Yik Ying, dean of the National University of Singapore’s So Soe Hok School of Public Health.
Meanwhile, millions of people become infected and have mild or no symptoms. From South Africa to Europe to Asia, governments have largely experienced manageable levels of hospitalizations and deaths.
The rapidly growing number of cases is no longer the leading factor it once was, undermining the old principle that more cases require more restrictions.
“We understood that we would not be able to eliminate the virus,” said Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco.
She said there was a growing acceptance among governments of the need to treat Covid-19 like other diseases, with an emphasis on treating patients in hospitals, where vaccines prevent many people from becoming seriously ill.
Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical advisor, said recently that the levels of death and hospitalizations associated with Covid-19 in the United States justify taking precautions including hiding in many places to continue for the time being. But he said a future in which the disease was under adequate control loomed large.
“We think we can get there because we have the tools with vaccines, boosters, masks, tests and antiviral drugs,” Dr. Fauci said. “We still have a way to go.”
Australia has reported more infections and deaths this month than it has throughout the entire pandemic. During previous outbreaks, the country’s border closures were so stringent that some citizens were stranded abroad or faced a two-week quarantine once they returned home. This time, Australia did not impose such limits.
“You have two options here. You can push, or you can close,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said last January. “We are going forward.”
Tools that were used earlier in the pandemic, such as contract tracking and long periods of self-isolation, have been abandoned in many countries. Five US public health groups recently said they supported a move away from comprehensive investigations into the Covid-19 case and contact tracing.
Groups, including the Association of State and County Health Officials, State Council and regional epidemiologists, said the wide availability of vaccines and the prevalence of infections in Omicron made the blanket surveillance approach less ideal. Instead, the groups said, health officials should focus on targeted investigations in high-risk settings that serve vulnerable populations.
Schools that once closed for several months when the Covid-19 virus broke out are now closing for several days. In the United States, Burbio Inc. , a data company that tracks school closings from kindergarten through the end of secondary education, found that 7,461 schools did not offer in-person learning a day or more during the week of January 10. week of January 24.
The healthcare sector is also shifting away from strict isolation measures. ShiftMed, an online platform with more than 60,000 users that allows US healthcare workers to open shifts in healthcare facilities, said many nurses are being asked to work despite testing positive for Covid-19.
In a survey of 600 nurses, 33% said they were asked to work despite having asymptomatic Covid-19, and 37% said they were asked to come to work despite being exposed to Covid-19 through close contact. About 90% of the nurses surveyed were vaccinated.
In the UK, where the number of cases at the start of the year was nearly three times the rate of previous spikes in the previous year, the government has allowed pubs and restaurants to stay open and major sporting events to go ahead with large crowds.
In parts of the country, about 1 in 10 people had the virus at the start of the year before infections started dropping. However, more recently, around 12% of children aged 2 to 12 years were estimated to be affected by the Office for National Statistics.
This prevalence did not translate into deaths in the way previous increases did. The number of people on ventilator beds has decreased this month, upsetting previous experience. The UK has now lifted all of its Covid-19 restrictions.
A potential barrier to a shift toward coexistence with Covid-19 is the development of another variant that causes more severe disease or better evades immunity from vaccines.
Omicron is not the last word on the coronavirus. Early evidence suggests that an Omicron derivative known as BA. 2 It is spreading faster and gaining ground in countries such as the UK and Denmark. It has been recognized in about 40 countries around the world, including the United States
So far there is no evidence that it causes more serious disease or that it avoids vaccines better than Omicron. In Denmark, where scientists say BA. 2 may already be the dominant alternative, the government decided to join others all over Europe In easing controls, most mandatory restrictions will be lifted on February 1.
In Singapore, where infections have risen and are expected to increase further, about 99.7% of cases in recent weeks have been asymptomatic or mild. Local media, taking the cue from health officials, is now emphasizing the number of patients in hospital or needing intensive care rather than highlighting the number of daily cases. Of the city’s 5.7 million residents, 13 are in intensive care units.
These results, along with a vaccination rate of nearly 90% in Singapore, mean that it is no longer using an army of contact tracing tools to identify and crush all cases of transmission, opting for automated detection. Residents who have supported tighter restrictions, even when the outbreak was a fraction of the scale today, are expressing openness to moving forward.
“We understood that we would not be able to eliminate the virus. “
“We’ll get it sooner or later,” Grace C., a 29-year-old recruitment specialist at a Singaporean company, seems to be just lucky in the lottery. “We’ve reached the acceptance stage.”
As recently as last fall, the strictest distancing measures were set aside in South Korea only when the number of daily infections averaged nearly 2,000 for a week. Omicron broke the country’s standards. And the country announced on Sunday that daily infections hit a record high of more than 17,000 before the Lunar New Year holiday, which may more than double. The country’s health officials have vowed not to tighten restrictions.
Instead, they calmed them down, citing relatively low death rates and severe illness. They allowed groups of six people to gather, after they were four. They have abandoned the test-everyone policy that halted the outbreak for so long. They shortened quarantine times from 10 days to 7 days for vaccinated individuals who have had Covid-19 but do not have severe symptoms.
“Distancing is a measure that leads to huge social and economic costs,” said Son Young-rae, a senior health official.
Lee Yeon-Jin, a 30-year-old office worker in Seoul, decided that enough was enough. “We are no longer staying at home because there are thousands of cases,” Ms. Lee said.
In Japan, the number of daily cases was around 100 in early December, but Omicron sparked an increase to more than 80,000 this past week.
Despite the numbers, Japan has relaxed some of the rules. Doctors and nurses are allowed to continue working even if they come into close contact as long as they have tested negative for Covid-19. The government has abandoned its policy of hospitalizing all Omicron patients, allowing asymptomatic or moderately young and low-risk patients to recover at home.
“It is important to address this issue in a way that enables society and economic activities to continue,” government spokesman Hirokazu Matsuno said on Thursday.
Hong Kong, under pressure from international business groups, last week shortened what had been one of the world’s longest quarantine requirements for incoming travelers from three weeks to two weeks.
Ben Cowling, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong, said some public health measures will still be necessary in places to buy time for people to get booster doses and manage the pressure on hospitals.
“The next few months are going to be tough because of Omicron, but the shutdown is no longer justified,” he said.
–Alice Uribe in Sydney and Miho Inada in Tokyo contributed to this article.
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