Buckle up — here we go again!

Just when you thought it was safe, well safer, to ease up on the more onerous rituals COVID-19 has introduced into our lives — like wearing a mask in public and choosing a restaurant with outdoor seating for brunch — there is a new variant, this one a variant of a variant, surging in Europe, Asia, Australia, and South America.  I don’t know why, but this one didn’t get named after a letter of the Greek alphabet; the ubiquitous “they” are just calling it the BA.2 sub-variant of the Omicron variant.  According to the World Health Organization (WHO):

Based on available data of transmission, severity, reinfection, diagnostics, therapeutics and impacts of vaccines, the group reinforced that the BA.2 sublineage should continue to be considered a variant of concern and that it should remain classified as Omicron.

BA.2 already accounts for 23% of all US cases, according to the CDC’s COVID Data Tracker, updated daily.  This latest development is like another twist and turn in a really good John le Carré novel:  just when it looks like the guy who discovered the secret documents is on to the bad guy, the maleficent throws an obstacle in his way, and we know we have another two or three chapters down a side road before we’re back on the path to a resolution.  The question in front of us now is will we rise to the challenge?  Of course not.

I say that not because I am a pessimist but based on our performance to date.  Rather than treating coronavirus as a serious threat to public health, we have handled it like some kind of joke.  Instead of concerned citizens demanding vaccines, safety measures, and information from experts, we have a woman in a Santa hat playing Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is You on her phone while singing (badly) a parody to the tune opposing protection measures designed to keep people safe by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors at a public meeting.  Yes, really.  So forgive me, thoughtful reader, if I sound alarmist.  I think I have cause.

San Diego woman sings anti COVID safety measures song

Experts, and by that I mean doctors and scientists not morons in silly hats, are telling us the BA.2 sub-variant is significantly more contagious than its cousin, the Omicron strain of coronavirus which walloped the United States last Christmas.  Omicron was more contagious than its predecessor, Delta, which laid us low last Summer.  And Delta was post-vaccine, post-a year of efforts aimed at mitigating viral spread.  I’m no expert, but I can spot a trend.  Viruses adapt.  We know this from 40 years of data on HIV, and we are seeing it with our own eyes as coronavirus plays cat and mouse with us.

The good news, if there is any, is that many people developed immunity due to the recent Omicron surge; combined with our good but not great vaccination rate in the United States, data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation suggests we have a countrywide immunity as high as 73%, as reported by the Associated Press.  Also, warmer summer weather has an anecdotal affect on viral transmission as people tend to be outside and spread out more.  But, immunity, be it provided by contracting the disease itself or vaccination or, as in my case, both, is not a one-and-done proposition — it wears off a little every day.  That waning immunity can be seen in real time in South Korea, once the poster child for COVID-19 control, which is currently experiencing an outbreak of just under 3 million new cases and 2,162 deaths in the last week, according to data from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

South Korea is a victim of its own success and should serve as a cautionary tale.  The country embraced testing, masks, social distancing, contact tracing, and vaccination, successfully keeping the pandemic in check at first.  But recent missteps I would only describe as "premature victory" blindness led them to drop their guard, allowing cases to skyrocket and leaving them frantically trying to put the toothpaste back into the tube.  As an example, last November, South Korea began to relax its famously rigid mask and distancing precautions, not to mention that many in South Korea were vaccinated in the first half of 2021 — because of complacency, a booster was not strongly recommended, which left many, particularly the elderly, at risk for infection.

Relaxed precautions, a population with immunity that decreases over time, and a new very transmissible variant have plunged South Korea into the thick of it.  It’s a perfect storm, one that I fear is gathering in the United States, in which the same three factors are present.

So get ready thoughtful reader because we’ve seen this movie before.  We can count on there being more political grandstanding, more public health officials pleading with people to take this seriously, more debates about the need for another booster, more vitriolic discussion of common sense protection and mitigation efforts on schools, restaurants, and the economy at large, and more imbeciles in stupid hats singing badly.  And don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by reports that these variants are “less severe.”  I had COVID last month, and it was less severe in the way that being run over by a 1983 Renault Le Car is less impactful than being run over by an 18 wheeler Peterbilt Model 389 tractor trailer.

389 Peterbilt

However the coming BA.2 sub-variant surge affects us, maybe, just maybe, it will finally convince the millions of mask skeptics and vaccine holdouts that listening to the science is the only way out from an endless cycle of sickness and reprieve and sickness and ...

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