Editorial: Omicron’s Paradox

Omicron’s Paradox

A COVID-weary public confronts the conundrum daily: Is this good news? Is it bad news?

We have to admit that we’re a little bit confused.

The Omicron caseload is frightening on its surface — ridiculously high numbers on a daily basis, top-of-the-fold newspaper coverage, lead-story status.

We’re so attuned to scary numbers and frightening graphs that when we hear about record-shattering daily positive tests coming back, the first thing we want to do is retreat to our quarantine corners and hide. We worry that we’re all going to become experts in the Greek alphabet before this is finished.
But then we look past the raw data and hear the experts say that with Omicron, it’s important to take a more analytical approach. Governor Kathy Hochul, on Monday, said, “People are testing at a much higher rate. It’s shocking in the scale of the number of people who are testing positive, but we’re grateful cases are not presenting themselves as severely as they did with Delta.” She cited encouraging news out of South Africa, where Omicron first was detected — a sharp jolt in positives followed by an equally sharp decline. “We have so many more defenses this time,” she said.

One of New York’s top public health policy experts, Bill Hammond of the Empire Center for Public Policy, calls it the Omicron paradox, writing: “Compared to last year at this time, the state’s infection rate is almost five times higher, while hospitalizations are roughly the same and deaths are at 40% lower.”

When it comes to protection against COVID-19, this page unabashedly supports vaccines and the booster. We support mask-wearing — even, in the current instance, Governor Hochul’s mandate, because it’s a good way to remind the population at large that now might be a pretty good time to take every step we can to guard ourselves and others around us against this horrible disease.

Top-down messaging — no matter how well-intentioned — rarely works. What sounds good in the war room hits a New York State-sized pothole the minute it gets out. The governor’s “Winter Surge 2.0” New Year’s Eve press conference probably rattled a few cages: keep kids in school if your school is a part of this ‘test-to-stay’ protocol that says if a student tests positive, classmates can take an at-home test kit and return to the classroom upon receiving a negative test result instead of entering mandatory quarantine. Yet just before Christmas, Otsego County’s Department of Health announced it would not allow individuals to ‘test out’ of quarantine owing to a massive number of those under lockdown and a miniscule number of staff able to authorize the tests. Some school districts in the state allow an unchecked negative from at-home tests, others do not.

Then there’s mask protocol. For nearly two years, we’ve been told that cloth face coverings do the job.
Not so, perhaps — in that December 31 briefing, Governor Hochul donned an N-95 surgical mask and said that all New Yorkers should do the same. Even double-masking with cloth might be insufficient against Omicron’s insidious contagion. We might even want to think about an N-95 doubled up WITH a cloth mask. Even if we’re vaxxed, double-vaxxed, or triple-vaxxed.

Mixed messaging comes from the inescapable truth that COVID and its Greek-alphabet variants demand almost hourly change. We recognize, too, that Governor Hochul has to do something of a U-turn when it comes to news out of the Capitol: unlike her predecessor, rather than offering data seemingly manicured for that day’s press briefing and/or making every statement on COVID a definitive, final answer (subject to change), she appears unafraid to admit that she has to pivot whenever the Center for Disease Control or some other authority changes its procedures and recommendations.

Unable as we may be to sort out the protocol for the day, this page will continue its support for personal and public responsibility, with masks, vaccines, and, if we’ve got any left, patience.

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