Omicron and the Return to Normalcy

Are precautions still needed as endemicity seems to come into view?

Image of a man wearing a mask
Nick Paleologos / Bloomberg / Getty

About the author: Conor Friedersdorf is a California-based staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs, and the author of the Up for Debate newsletter. He is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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Question of the Week

The holiday break is over for most. How should America’s colleges, high schools, and elementary schools handle the winter surge of COVID-19 cases associated with the Omicron variant? What do you like most or least about how your educational institution is handling the pandemic? What local details of interest can you share about how matters are being handled near you? As ever, my email address is

Conversations of Note

My first mental model of this pandemic took shape on February 24, 2020, when James Hamblin published “You’re Likely to Get the Coronavirus.” At the time, there were fewer than 100 known cases in the United States. Yet in his telling, 40 to 70 percent of humans would eventually get infected. Slowing COVID’s spread still made sense, to avoid overwhelming hospitals, but were countermeasures warranted beyond what was necessary to avoid swamping caregivers?

I thought that the right answer hinged on an unknown. “If we knew that a broadly effective COVID-19 treatment was imminent, or that a working vaccine was months away,” I wrote in May 2020, “minimizing infections through social distancing until that moment would be the right course.” But “if we will never have an effective treatment or vaccine and most everyone will get infected,” I continued, the costs would outweigh the benefits. I gambled that there would be a vaccine, or improved treatments, or both, and continued to take extreme, isolating precautions.

In my mind, that bet paid off. At great cost to normal living, I avoided COVID until I was vaccinated in the spring of 2021. I’ve since received a booster. Now, as the highly infectious Omicron variant spreads, I am as well protected as I can reasonably be against hospitalization or death.

But others differ in their backward-looking assessments.

In the book The Year the World Went Mad: A Scientific Memoir, the British epidemiologist Mark Woolhouse made the case that his country’s long national lockdown was a huge mistake.

“We did serious harm to our children and young adults who were robbed of their education, jobs and normal existence, as well as suffering damage to their future prospects, while they were left to inherit a record-breaking mountain of public debt,” he argued. “All this to protect the NHS from a disease that is a far, far greater threat to the elderly, frail and infirm than to the young and healthy.” On the whole, he added, “we were mesmerised by the once-in-a-century scale of the emergency and succeeded only in making a crisis even worse. In short, we panicked. This was an epidemic crying out for a precision public health approach and it got the opposite.”

David Leonhardt shares a similar concern––that for two years, Americans have accepted more harm to children in exchange for less harm to adults––though he has a somewhat different conclusion:

For the past two years, large parts of American society have decided harming children was an unavoidable side effect of Covid-19. And that was probably true in the spring of 2020, when nearly all of society shut down to slow the spread of a deadly and mysterious virus.

But the approach has been less defensible for the past year and a half, as we have learned more about both Covid and the extent of children’s suffering from pandemic restrictions. Data now suggest that many changes to school routines are of questionable value in controlling the virus’s spread. Some researchers are skeptical that school closures reduce Covid cases in most instances. Other interventions, like forcing students to sit apart from their friends at lunch, may also have little benefit. One reason: Severe versions of Covid, including long Covid, are extremely rare in children. For them, the virus resembles a typical flu. Children face more risk from car rides than Covid.

The new variant and the new year are prompting many others to reflect on their own conceptions of COVID-19. Marty Makary argued that institutions of higher education are being far too strict with their students. Zvi Mowshowitz pored over all the data he could find and concluded, “You are probably going to get Omicron, if you haven’t had it already. The level of precaution necessary to change this assessment is very high, and you probably don’t want to pay that price.”

Still, if you’re vaccinated and boosted, he wrote,

you can probably guard against Omicron if you want to do so badly enough and don’t need to work outside the home, either short term or entirely. This means a P100-style or better mask. It means extreme social distancing and isolation and caring about ventilation.

(He continues to monitor the data and tweak his predictions here.)

Some observers who share Mowshowitz’s mental model of the pandemic believe that it undermines the case for vaccine mandates. Noting the frequency of Omicron breakthrough infections, Jim Geraghty wrote,

Is the lesson of this that the vaccinations don’t work? No. The lesson is that widespread vaccination has achieved what some of the Covid-19 skeptics were asserting back in March 2020—it turned SARS-CoV-2 into something comparable to a bad winter flu season. It’s a pain, but it’s not the sort of menace we shut down society to stop.

But if everyone is going to catch the Omicron variant—be they vaccinated, boosted, or unvaccinated—and if lots of infections are going to be minor or asymptomatic, it raises the question of why we need to fire people for being unvaccinated—particularly doctors and nurses at hospitals that are currently seeing a flood of patients. Why are we threatening to fire truckers during a supply-chain crisis? Why are we threatening to fire anyone, for that matter? No business threatens to fire an employee who skips an annual flu shot.

If everyone’s going to get it eventually, do we still need mask mandates in schools? If we’re going to have mask mandates, does it make sense to have kids or anyone else wearing cloth masks? Does any institution in America want to get into the business of making sure people are wearing three-ply surgical masks instead of cloth masks? If everyone’s going to get it eventually, and the overwhelming majority of infections will be asymptomatic or mild, why are colleges and universities going back to virtual learning? And why is Anthony Fauci talking about a vaccine mandate for domestic air travel?

In contrast, Sigal Samuel argued in Vox that while COVID-19 will, indeed, become endemic sooner or later, whatever we do, taking extra precautions this winter still makes sense. “Modeling suggests that omicron could peak in mid- to late January in the US, with case rates steeply declining—and activities becoming correspondingly safer again—in February,” she wrote.

I don’t mind taking extra precautions for a few weeks to slow a winter surge and hedge against the possibility of overwhelmed hospitals and increased death rates, and I feel for the fatigued medical professionals facing yet another surge. Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine wrote on Twitter, “Hospitalizations in NYC are rising faster than at any point since March, 2020. With a healthcare workforce which is now exhausted and depleted. We can’t just accept this. We have to do more to slow this wave.”

The sociologist Zeynep Tufekci added,

NYC at ~50,000 known cases per day … and who knows how many untested. Yes hospitalization rate is very low but a small % of a huge number is big … There is a point at which exponential math takes over policy preferences. I don’t understand how this isn’t obvious two years into this pandemic.

Others note that Omicron seems to have a much lower case-fatality rate than the Alpha and Delta variants, and feel that if they don’t push back now we’ll never return to normal. “The groundwork is being laid to extend the pandemic’s emergency measures in perpetuity,” Noah Rothman argued in Commentary, “and apply it to conditions that were once a banal part of daily life.”

Alana Newhouse said,

This was the year we learned that this interlocking blob [of public and private institutions] could decide to shut down our schools, force children in pre-K to be masked all day and isolate others from necessary social interaction, regardless of the consequences to their mental or physical health; they will decide what we’re allowed to read; and what we must put in our bodies.

And here’s Jennifer Rubin in The Washington Post: “As we recognize that covid-19 is not a deadly or even severe disease for the vast majority of responsible Americans, we can stop agonizing over ‘cases’ and focus on those who are hospitalized or at risk of dying.”

I worry about getting back to normal, too.

One concern I have is that the public will polarize, with one faction calling for ongoing precautions and the other for a return to normality, and that the “return to normality” faction will be resistant to vaccine boosters, something I regard as a key enabler of living as we did before the pandemic. Katherine Wu argued that “we probably will need additional shots. But just how many depends on our immune systems, the virus, and how often they collide.” I hope she is wrong, and that three shots plus Omicron end this pandemic, but I want everyone to be open to another booster if changing facts justify it. I no longer think I can predict whether or not they will.

After all, as Ed Yong recently put it,

After Delta’s emergence, it became clear that the coronavirus was too transmissible to fully eradicate. Omicron could potentially shunt us more quickly toward a different endgameendemicity, the point when humanity has gained enough immunity to hold the virus in a tenuous stalemate—albeit at significant cost. But more complicated futures are also plausible. For example, if Omicron and Delta are so different that each can escape the immunity that the other induces, the two variants could co-circulate … Omicron also reminds us that more variants can still arise—and stranger ones than we might expect.

Let’s hope for the best.

Joan Didion, RIP

It’s a sign of our identity-focused times that one of the most discussed articles marking the passing of the iconic writer was headlined “Rest in Power, White Ladies” and proceeded as though there were something inherently racialized about liking Joan Didion. Gawker’s Sarah Haji wrote,

I am holding space for my white sisters. Eve Babitz and Joan Didion, style icons for a particular sort of woman online, both died this week. I’m sorry, please know that I’m holding you all close as you post a lot of pieces of writing I am embarrassed to say I have never heard of. I understand this is your 9/11. That Babitz and Didion were really important to shaping your personalities, and whether you thought it was better to be hot or cool. I’ll never forget reading passages from their books in your Instagram stories … I dropped out of university so I never got to learn about Didion. Never too late, I guess.

The lamentable implication: Didion was for white women. It’s lamentable because it might well dissuade young people who aren’t white women from reading Didion. If you don’t think she has anything to say to men, this Jay Caspian Kang essay should suffice as a corrective. If you don’t think she has anything to say to women of color, read Zadie Smith on what she gleaned:

I remain grateful for the day I picked up “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and realized that a woman could speak without hedging her bets, without hemming and hawing, without making nice, without poeticisms, without sounding pleasant or sweet, without deference, and even without doubt. It must be hard for a young woman today to imagine the sheer scope of things that women of my generation feared women couldn’t do—but, believe me, writing with authority was one of them. You wanted to believe it. You needed proof. And not Victorian proof. Didion—like her contemporary Toni Morrison—became Exhibit A. Uniquely, she could be kept upon your person, like a flick knife, stuffed in a back pocket, the books being so slim and portable. She gave you confidence.

These juxtapositions remind me of another favorite essayist of mine, Ta-Nehisi Coates, musing on the racial essentialism of white supremacists who treated descendants of slaves as inferiors:

This was all distilled for me in a quote I once read, from the novelist Saul Bellow. I can’t remember where I read it, or when—only that I was already at Howard. “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?,” Bellow quipped. Tolstoy was “white,” I understood him to say, and so Tolstoy “mattered,” like everything else that was white “mattered.” And this view of things was connected to the fear that passed through the generations, to the sense of dispossession. We were black, beyond the visible spectrum, beyond civilization. Our history was inferior because we were inferior, which is to say our bodies were inferior.

It must have been around that time that I discovered an essay by Ralph Wiley in which he responded to Bellow’s quip. “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus,” wrote Wiley. “Unless you find a profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership.” And there it was. I had accepted Bellow’s premise. In fact, Bellow was no closer to Tolstoy than I was to Nzinga. And if I were closer it would be because I chose to be, not because of destiny written in DNA. My great error was not that I had accepted someone else’s dream but that I had accepted the fact of dreams, the need for escape, and the invention of racecraft.

Like all great writers, Didion has something to offer any human who invests in reading her work, which no more belongs to members of one race or gender than it does to members of any other.

Provocation of the Week

This one is on climate change, from Matt Simon, writing in Wired:

A perfect storm is ravaging the Arctic—literally. As the world warms, more lightning systems are igniting more peat fires. They burn through ancient buried plant material and release great plumes of greenhouse gases, which further warm the planet. At the same time, as plant species march north thanks to a more hospitable climate, the Arctic is greening. That darkens the landscape and absorbs more of the sun’s energy, further heating the region. It also provides more fuel to burn; dried plants above ground ignite more readily than permafrost, which is made from frozen dirt or sand or gravel mixed with dead plants. But permafrost is now thawing so rapidly that it’s creating massive sinkholes in the earth, up to 100 feet wide and 10 feet deep, a process known as thermokarst.

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