Meteorologists don't wait until a tornado is on the ground to issue watches and warnings. Alarms sound when conditions are right for violent weather, giving those in its path time to seek shelter and secure their homes.
The same batten-down-the-hatches approach is required for COVID's new, highly infectious omicron variant. While there are mixed signals about whether it causes milder illness, the uncertainty and the hurricane-force ferocity with which it has spread merit urgent action from individuals and political leaders. Testing before holiday gatherings (and not going if positive) is especially prudent.
On Tuesday, President Joe Biden is expected to address a pandemic-weary nation about omicron's threat. He needs to do far more than simply urge Americans to get vaccinated and boosted. What's needed are specifics about how the federal government will leverage its authority and vast resources to help Americans individually do their part.
Here are some key questions Biden should answer:
Booster availability. Only about 30% of the U.S. population has gotten a COVID booster. That's troubling when protection provided by having had COVID or the regular vaccine series is less robust against omicron infection. Boosters restore it, but they are needed swiftly before omicron's spread. Unfortunately, appointments can be hard to find. What is the plan to ease access?
Vaccine uptake. Slightly more than 65% of Americans eligible for the shot (essentially those 5 and up) are fully vaccinated. That leaves far too many at risk of hospitalization and death, especially with the delta strain still circulating. Additional action is needed to spur vaccinations and boosters. The Star Tribune Editorial Board has argued that requiring vaccinations for air travel would act as an incentive. Will the Biden administration take this sensible step?
Testing. If Americans could find out quickly that they have COVID, they could act to check viral spread. Minnesota's community testing program provides far more options (at no-cost) than most states. But the convenience of rapid, at-home tests is hard to beat. These are currently sold over the counter but can be hard to find. In addition, a two-test package of BinaxNOW or other brands often costs $20-$25. Authorities should mail free tests to households or make them available for free at post offices or drugstores.
COVID treatments. Monoclonal antibodies, a mainstay treatment once someone is infected, may not work as well against omicron. The welcome exception appears to be sotrovimab, but supplies could be challenging. Federal authorities should push to boost production. Antiviral pills in development, particularly Paxlovid from Pfizer, could help reduce severe illness in those infected. Now would be a good time to expedite approval and ensure adequate supplies.
Masking. Wider use of more effective high-filtration masks, such as N95s, could help halt viral spread. Provide them at no-cost to consumers by mail or other methods.
State and local governments shouldn't stand idly by. They could help with mask and at-home rapid test supplies, for example. A temporary mask requirement for indoor public and commercial spaces would also be timely and beneficial. Gov. Tim Walz and the Minnesota Legislature should put this in place. If not, cities and counties could act.
Policies easing access to high-quality masks, tests and vaccinations or boosters are essential as omicron makes landfall. Biden should clearly outline how his administration will help responsible Americans who want to protect themselves, their families and communities.