On the menu today: After nearly two years of warning readers about how menacing and contagious Covid-19 is, The Atlantic magazine runs an essay declaring that Americans are testing themselves for the virus too much; the U.S. reaches more than 1 million new cases in a day, while many communities find tests in short supply; and there’s a good chance that by the time the Biden administration gets all of those tests it ordered, the Omicron wave will have come and gone.
Oh, Now The Atlantic Decrees Americans Are Paranoid about Catching Covid
If you’re worried about Covid-19, then there’s an excellent chance that at least once over the past two years, either you’ve read an article or someone has sent you an article about the pandemic from The Atlantic magazine. Day after day, week after week, that publication offers at least one article or personal essay that warns you that, as bad as things may seem, they’re actually much worse and will probably get even worse tomorrow, all with a headline perfectly calibrated to go viral, no pun intended, among the most Covid-concerned: “Georgia’s Experiment in Human Sacrifice.” “We Know Enough About Omicron to Know That We’re in Trouble.” “Covid Is Not Endemic Yet — And May Not Be for a Long Time.” “You Can Get COVID and the Flu at the Same Time.” “America Can’t Beat Omicron One Booster at a Time.”
The only thing that scares the staff of The Atlantic magazine more than Covid-19 is Kevin D. Williamson.
And now, seemingly out of nowhere, The Atlantic runs an essay by Benjamin Mazer, a physician specializing in laboratory medicine, headlined with the imperative, “Stop Wasting COVID Tests, People”:
Many of those queuing up for tests this week have little choice about the matter; negative results can be required for travel or school or access to public venues. But other types of COVID screening — before and after family gatherings, for instance, or while visiting nearby vacation destinations — are optional. It might seem reckless to suggest that people undergo less surveillance; indeed, the standard expert’s take has been the opposite, that we all should screen ourselves as often as possible in order to help reduce community spread. But even with increased testing, we stand little chance of controlling Omicron this winter at the population level. And testing is, for now, a zero-sum game. Each unnecessary swab that you consume means one fewer is available for more important purposes — such as diagnosing a symptomatic infection. . . .
Everyone should do what they can to free testing resources for those with symptoms. We should also try to allocate tests based on underlying risks. The unvaccinated are, overall, most in danger of being hospitalized and dying from the virus, so they are also, overall, the people who benefit the most from having those around them screened for infection. Social bubbles being what they are, I suspect that many people with arsenals of at-home tests spend much of their personal time around other vaccinated and relatively low-risk individuals, making the public-health benefits of their personal screening programs marginal at best.
After nearly two years of articles warning people about the severity of Covid-19, how wildly contagious the variants are, describing the ailments of those with “long Covid,” and relentlessly spotlighting every other potentially dire outcome, The Atlantic runs an article about how people are being paranoid and testing themselves for Covid too much. Gee, I wonder how people ended up in that fearful mindset.
The white stuff on the ground outside your window probably reminded you that this is winter — which means it is flu season and all kinds of colds and bugs are going around. The symptoms of Covid-19 are infuriatingly varied, with many being indistinguishable from the flu or the usual winter colds: fever or chills, cough, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headaches, sore throat, congestion, runny nose, nausea or vomiting — in addition to the more unusual loss of taste or smell — and serious shortness of breath or the more serious difficulty breathing,
In other words, it’s early January, everybody’s just come back from visiting or hosting relatives for Christmas, and in much of the country, cold, snow, and icy winter weather are keeping everybody indoors. It’s hyperbole to say that everybody’s sick right now, but . . . everybody’s sick right now! And lots of people — often for very good reasons! — want to know whether that tickle in the back of their throat or that congestion or that cough is just another winter cold, or whether they’ve caught, and could spread, Omicron. Remember what I wrote just before the Christmas break, about the roughly 1.8 million Americans diagnosed with cancer each year. About seven million Americans are immunocompromised. Even if they’re vaccinated and boosted, the immunocompromised have good reasons to try to avoid a run-in with Covid-19. And keeping the vulnerable away from an infection would be a lot easier if we knew who had Covid and who didn’t.
Yesterday, there were more than 1 million new Covid-19 cases reported — 1,017,376 to be exact. (I am glad that much of the media world has come around to the argument that the number of cases is not the best measurement for the severity of the pandemic — an argument that some of us were making long before the Biden administration started making it. But it is particularly convenient for the Biden administration that a rapid spike in cases is no longer deemed a presidential failure, because that certainly wasn’t the media’s mindset during the first year of this pandemic, now, was it?)
The vast majority of those million new Covid-19 cases live in a household, and now everyone in that household wants to know if they have Covid-19 or not. Those who were in close contact in the past day or so will want to know if they have Covid-19 or not. Is it safe to go to work? Is it safe to send the kids to school? (Assuming there is school.) How many days should everyone quarantine? Is one negative test a sign that the virus has passed through a person’s system?
Mazer complains that, “We face an awkward situation where many universities are performing thousands of tests a day on young, vaccinated, and largely healthy student populations while high-risk individuals and their caregivers struggle to keep up with surveillance.” Perhaps the average university student isn’t likely to run into someone who is elderly or immunocompromised . . . but lots of otherwise-healthy adults are. It’s not unreasonable for them to want to know if they’ve caught Omicron!
Oh, and note how the closing paragraph of Mazer’s column begins: “I will admit to being as self-interested as any other human. Despite recognizing the need for vaccine and test equity, I received three Pfizer shots as soon as I was eligible, and I’ve kept a stash of rapid-detection kits in my closet.”
A contributor to The Atlantic has a stash of rapid-detection kits in his closet? Who saw that coming?
The Testing Debacle Continues
This is a moment where it would be really terrific to have a surplus of Covid-19 tests around — but of course, as 2022 begins, many Americans still can’t find tests on the store shelves in their communities. The state of Missouri pledges to ship you one in two days, or you can pay $16 to have it shipped overnight.
New Mexico, Austin, Louisiana, San Diego — either no one can find tests on store shelves, or they’re standing in long lines at public testing sites. The Philadelphia Department of Public Health is telling the public that they don’t know when they’ll have more tests, and is helpfully telling those who can’t find tests and who have symptoms to just act like they have Covid-19. Up in Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker says his state has enough tests, but is running short on staff to administer them.
Up in New York, state senator Jim Tedisco is noting that the state is providing his office with a weekly allowance of two test kits, while most of his constituents can’t find any.
The Fine Print on Biden’s Promise of Lots of New Tests
Right around now, you might remember President Biden pledging back on December 21 that, “The federal government will purchase one half billion — that’s not million; billion with a ‘B’ — additional at-home rapid tests, with deliveries starting in January.”
On December 29, Biden’s White House Coronavirus Response coordinator Jeffrey Zeints said that, “We expect the contract to be completed late next week.” So the contract apparently isn’t signed yet. That same day, the Biden administration announced a separate $137 million contract for Millipore Sigma, a unit of Germany’s Merck, which sounded like a big step toward expanding the ability to manufacture tests quickly: “The money will allow the company over three years to build a new facility to produce nitrocellulose membranes, the paper that displays test results, in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. That, in turn, will allow for 85 million more tests to be produced per month, the official said.”
But then you look at the local Sheboygan press and learn that, “MilliporeSigma has already begun planning construction of the facility, which is expected to be operational in late 2024.”
No one knows exactly when the Omicron wave of cases will peak, but based upon the experience of other countries, Omicron cases rise spectacularly quickly and then decline almost as quickly:
“We’re seeing a record number of cases globally and in many states, in the U.S. we’re seeing record cases,” Dr. Ali Mokdad said. “It produces once inside the human body 70 times faster than what we have seen before and that’s inciting more infections.”
Mokdad is studying the spread of COVID-19. His projections are used around the world, including by the White House.
He said his models show we could reach the peak of the omicron wave by mid-January.
“It will peak so fast in the United States. People who are vaccinated and people who received a booster will less likely end up in a hospital. We know that for sure. People who are not vaccinated will be at a higher risk,” Mokdad said.
Dr. Mokdad said the drop will happen just as fast. He said the wave could be over by the end of January.
By the time the administration gets those tests it ordered, the Omicron wave will probably have come and gone.
ADDENDUM: Hopefully, a Biden administration that seems reflexively suspicious of angry parents will pay attention to New York Times columnist David Leonhardt: “Many schools have still not returned to normal, worsening learning loss and isolation. Once-normal aspects of school life — lunchtime, extracurriculars, assemblies, school trips, parent-teacher conferences, reliable bus schedules — have been transformed if not eliminated.”