On May 27, 2020, the US 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 US 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 US 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.”
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