Scarcely two months after the omicron variant drove coronavirus case numbers to frightening heights in the United States, scientists and health officials are bracing for another swell in the pandemic and, with it, the first major test of the country’s strategy of living with the virus while limiting its impact.
At local, state and federal levels, the nation has been relaxing restrictions and trying to restore a semblance of normalcy.
But scientists are warning that the U.S. isn’t doing enough to prevent a new surge from endangering vulnerable Americans and potentially upending life again.
New pills can treat infections, but federal efforts to buy more of them are in limbo. An aid package in Congress is stalled, even as agencies run out of money for tests and therapeutics. Though less than one-third of the population has the booster shots needed for high levels of protection, the daily vaccination rate has fallen to a low.
While some Americans may never be persuaded to roll up their sleeves, experts said that health officials could be doing a lot more, for example, to get booster shots to the doorsteps of older people who have proved willing to take the initial doses.
The clearest warnings that the brief period of quiet may soon be over have come, as they often have in the past two years, from Western Europe. In a number of countries, including Britain, France and Germany, case numbers are climbing as an even more contagious subvariant of omicron, known as BA.2, takes hold.
Case numbers are still dropping nationally, but BA.2 accounts for a growing proportion of those infections, rising to almost one-quarter of new cases last week. The subvariant is estimated to be 30% to 50% more contagious than the previous version of omicron, BA.1.
“I expect we’ll see a wave in the U.S. sooner than what most people expect,” said Kristian Andersen, a virus expert at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. He said that it could come as soon as April, or perhaps later in the spring or the early summer.
“There are so many things we could be doing, yet the United States has time and time again chosen to be reactive, rather than proactive, and that has cost us dearly,” said Anne Rimoin, a public health researcher at UCLA. “We’ve been wearing rose-colored glasses instead of correcting our vision.”
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