Agarwal: The fifth wave’s preventable severity

How and why the Omicron wave should have been mitigated

Aambar Agarwal, Staff Writer

Yet again, the world is in the midst of a COVID-19 surge. Fueled by the Omicron variant, a highly contagious form of SARS-CoV-2, the wave has closed schools, strained hospitals and disrupted the economy—an unnervingly similar narrative to March 2020. After nearly two years since the start of the pandemic, one would imagine that people now understand the importance of wearing masks and getting vaccinated. One would imagine that the governments of developed countries would realize the need to vaccinate the entire world—not just their own country—and for a well-defined public health response. However, as demonstrated by the extent of the surge, individuals and governments still have not learned.

Currently, in the United States, the total number of COVID-19 cases is greater than double that of the peak in January 2021. While this figure may seem inevitable, considering the Omicron variant’s higher transmissibility, Americans’ continued resistance towards mask-wearing and vaccinations only helps accelerate and increase the magnitude of this trend.

In lecture halls, grocery stores, doctor’s offices and other public spaces, it is not difficult to spot maskless individuals or those with their masks only covering their mouths, acting as if they are invincible—as if droplets laden with coronavirus can’t enter their unprotected airways and wreak havoc. And if they do anticipate contracting COVID-19, they fail to consider they could require hospitalization or spread the virus to a vulnerable loved one. They fail to consider that they are burdening healthcare workers, the immunocompromised, children who cannot get vaccinated, the elderly as well as the general public, with their ignorance.

The unclear guidance from the U.S. government on masks exacerbates this issue. It is widely known that COVID-19 is an airborne virus and that the vaccines do not guarantee complete immunity. Yet, mask guidance for indoor spaces has often gone back-and-forth over the months and been contradictory. The government’s actions are in part due to the ever-changing nature of the virus and information on it; however, without consistent directions and federal mandates, some individuals fail to grasp the importance of mask-wearing as they misconstrue the uncertainty of the situation as a lack of gravity, subsequently becoming burdens in the new waves.

Likewise, over 15% of American adults are unvaccinated, having received no doses of any of the COVID-19 vaccines. Due to their lack of protection, these adults are more susceptible to being infected and becoming gravely ill from COVID-19. These same adults also cause overflow in hospitals during each surge, taking away beds from those who need to be hospitalized for other reasons and straining the healthcare system. Their hesitancy is fueled by vaccine misinformation, which prominent public figures often propagate, such as former President Donald J. Trump. While President Joe Biden has been trying to implement vaccine mandates for federal workers and businesses, it is not enough. In unison, Biden needs to combat misinformation more rigorously and from multiple angles, rather than lightly pressuring social media companies and producing ads.

Furthermore, the Omicron variant and the severity of the surge could have been entirely prevented had the U.S. and other developed countries donated more of their stockpiled COVID-19 vaccines to developing countries with low vaccination rates, as discussed in a previous article (“The mess of COVID-19 vaccine distribution”). It would be difficult for the virus to spread and mutate by guaranteeing global herd immunity, resulting in its complete eradication or, more likely, COVID-19 becoming endemic. However, the U.S. and other countries chose to roll out boosters for their own populations instead, leaving other nations largely unvaccinated and at risk for a rise of the Omicron variant and others in the future. In these ways, the U.S. government and others have failed to properly guide and protect the public from COVID-19.

While the Omicron variant seems to result in fewer deaths and hospitalizations than previous variants, cases continue to rise faster than before. In fact, we might see death and hospitalization rates similar to those of previous waves. In other words, the virus’ higher transmissibility could bolster its lethality, making the current wave just as dire as those prior. 

As a result of this fifth wave, hospitals are overwhelmed and economic recovery has been disrupted in the U.S. once again. To free up beds for COVID-19 patients, hospitals postponed elective surgeries until after the surge. As hospital staff test positive at greater rates, they are unable to return to work for several days, worsening the effects of existing staff shortages and causing further strain. Similarly, as more workers test positive, businesses are becoming short-staffed, resulting in supply shortages and greater inflation.

To end this mess, the U.S. and other governments globally need to enforce proper mask-wearing and vaccinations, preferably through mandates, as well as distribute vaccinations equitably among nations. In the meantime, individuals must continue to persuade anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers of the importance of masks and vaccines against COVID-19, for both their and the public’s well-being. Without decisive action by both governments and individuals, the world will be forced to ride out each wave, wondering when the needless deaths and stress will finally come to an end.