On May 27, 2020, the United States passed what was then an unthinkable milestone: 100,000 Americans dead from Covid-19. The losses felt at once intangible and deeply personal to me. Twelve days earlier, my youngest brother had died—not from Covid, but from another preventable cause. I hadn’t seen him in months because of the pandemic, and I spent his funeral apart from the rest of my family: no hugs, no tears together, only distance. When the country passed 100,000 deaths, I felt the intense agony of so many families who were never able to say goodbye.
Joe Biden released a video that day criticizing the Trump administration for allowing the virus to spread and expressing grief over the incalculable loss. “The day will come when the memory of your loved one will bring a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eyes,” he said. The line reverberated through me. For a moment, I forgot I was watching a political ad; my grief and despair felt seen. Here was a politician who finally seemed to get it.
On Thursday, the U.S. shattered the previous day’s record high in daily Covid cases, and tomorrow will be worse. The omicron surge may not only be the toughest phase of the pandemic; it may be the greatest health challenge of our time. Our health system is already overwhelmed. Pharmacies and testing sites are closing because employees are sick; even for those lucky enough not to need medical care, it’s easy to foresee a January with closed classrooms and empty shelves at grocery stores.
And yet, the Biden administration has insisted that businesses and schools will stay open, stating that it will not impose restrictions like mask mandates or closures. This week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shortened recommended Covid isolation times regardless of test or vaccination status, which will likely lead to the continued spread of the virus. “They’re letting it rip,” Justin Feldman, a social epidemiologist at the Harvard FXB Center for Health & Human Rights, told me. “And a lot of people are going to die in the coming months.”
These recommendations are less about “following the science,” as Biden promised he’d do, and more about responding to public need—both to keep the essential functions of society running and to make isolation requirements more palatable to employers and workers. “There are so many people—now and likely in the next few weeks—who will be infected by this wave of infections that we’re getting with omicron,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to the president, said on Tuesday. “If all the essential workers that you would need” are kept out of work for 10 days even if they’re asymptomatic, he added, “that might have a negative impact on our ability to maintain the structure of society.”
The blame does not lie entirely at the feet of officials. Over the past two years, significant portions of our society have eschewed masks, vaccines, and other precautions to stop the spread of the virus. We’ve decided that a thousand or more deaths each day is regrettable but acceptable. But the fact that we are asking potentially infectious people to return to schools, hospitals, and restaurants in order to avoid societal collapse is a clear sign that officials failed to plan—both for another surge and for a more transmissible, immune-evasive variant like omicron, despite plentiful evidence for the likelihood of both.
Officials could have ordered millions of tests and masks over the summer, when manufacturers were destroying tests and imploring the administration to stockpile unsold masks after the premature announcement that vaccinated people no longer needed to mask. They could have scaled up the production of medications and therapeutics needed to prevent and treat severe illness, as well as the research and tools needed to understand where this virus might take us next. They could have strengthened hospital capacity, including addressing rampant burnout—in part by bringing down cases so that health workers wouldn’t be run ragged over the past two years.
Instead, we are once again playing defense, trying to minimize the losses this virus continues to wreak upon us—and doing so, in some cases, from a weaker position than we were in when the pandemic began. In many places, leaders simply lack the political will to implement the same measures from last year. “You have a lot of places, even with Democratic governors or mayors or county executives, who are opposing mask mandates—just using individual-responsibility language,” Feldman said.
Even worse, legislators in more than half of U.S. states have passed more than 100 new laws during the pandemic to restrict public health powers at the state or local level. There are also fewer workplace protections now, since the federal rule requiring employers to give workers paid sick leave for Covid-related reasons lapsed at the end of 2020. “They’re just saying, ‘Go back to work, keep working. This is fine. You probably won’t end up in the hospital,’” Feldman said.
“This is one of the darkest moments of this pandemic,” he added.
Covid will be with us for years, if not forever. It will evolve and present new challenges and complications. Because of the way we’ve allowed the virus to spread, it’s likely that we will all get it at some point. But the longer you can wait, the better—until hospitals are no longer overwhelmed, until there are more widely available and effective treatments, until long Covid is better understood and treated.
The argument that we can and must resume our normal lives assumes that we ourselves are not vulnerable and our lives are not inextricably bound up in the lives of the vulnerable. It assumes a level of normalcy I have never felt, because we are all connected to someone who is at risk of the worst to come.
Now, a new line from Biden rings in my head. “For [the] unvaccinated, we are looking at a winter of severe illness and death,” he said earlier this month. For the vaccinated, especially the boosted, everything will be much better, he added. And that’s true. We’re lucky enough, in this country, to have fantastic vaccines that seem to be holding up very well against serious illness and death even against variants like delta and omicron—for those who can access them and mount a strong, lasting immune response.
But here’s who I am thinking about in our winter of death:
My son, too young to be eligible for the vaccines. He was born 10 weeks early, and spent the first two months of his life in the hospital. He had open-heart surgery before he turned four months old. When people say, “Most kids are fine,” I picture my tiny son, his undeveloped lungs scraped by the ventilator that kept him alive in his first days, and I wonder if he will be among the lucky ones when the virus finds him.
My sister, who has survived Covid at least once before, and who religiously wears masks and uses hand sanitizer like she owns stock in Purell. She’s thinking about getting vaccinated, but she can’t square it yet with all the questions she has, and her doctor told her that recovered people don’t need the vaccine.
My mother, who is vaccinated and boosted but over the age of 65. She seems to have a new report every week about another resident of her retirement community who has fallen to Covid. I can’t tell her to stay inside and avoid it anymore; the virus is all around her.
The Biden administration’s recent moves make clear that there isn’t the political will to protect the vulnerable among us. There hasn’t been the will for some time. The government failed to use its power and resources to prepare for this moment, and it will result in thousands of deaths over the next few weeks, as well as untold rates of disability, loss, and disruption. That this was entirely foreseeable is a cold comfort.