While high levels of community vaccination are necessary, public health leaders must recognize they are not sufficient to protect hospitals, nursing homes and schools.
The greatest challenge of this Covid-19 wave will be staffing. Across the country, health care workers and teachers are exhausted and demoralized. Many hospitals, nursing homes and schools were understaffed even before Omicron. The problem will only worsen as vaccinated health care workers and teachers become too ill to work and their colleagues stay home to avoid getting sick. In hospitals and nursing homes, staffing shortages can greatly worsen quality of care, causing patients to die from Covid-19 or other illnesses they might normally survive.
Unlike in 2020, all jurisdictions need to recognize that in-person school is as essential to society as hospitals. Keeping children in class requires a redoubling of efforts in all school systems on vaccinations (particularly for all adults), masks, ventilation and testing to keep students and staff members healthy to learn and work.
States must activate emergency management systems now, even before Omicron surges in their area, to ensure sufficient staffing, testing, protective equipment, ventilation and public communication for hospitals, nursing homes and schools. For example, where rapid test kits are limited, the government should reallocate them away from community testing sites and toward schools and nursing homes. I also hope to hear Tuesday how the Biden administration will finally make rapid tests abundant and affordable.
Of course, public health leaders like myself need to recognize that many elected officials concluded well before Omicron that both Covid infections and deaths are inevitable and that even the most rudimentary measures, such as adding Covid vaccination to the long list of vaccines already mandated for health care workers, infringe on people’s liberties or cost too much. If you live in one of those areas, your protection from Covid-19 is now, unfortunately, mostly an individual responsibility.
Thankfully there are many actions you can take to protect yourself. You should get three doses of an mRNA vaccine or an mRNA booster if you received a different kind of vaccine initially. You should acknowledge that certain gatherings and time with grandparents are essential to mental health but be judicious about how you approach them. In the Omicron era, don’t assume that an indoor event is safe from infection risk just because only vaccinated people are present. Add layers of protection, such as using rapid tests no more than a few hours before entry, wearing high-quality masks and opening windows and doors.
Most important, prepare yourself and your loved ones for massive disruptions again. Unlike in 2020, when local governments ordered businesses to close, expect to see what’s happening now in New York City, where many restaurants, bars and offices are closing because they lack a healthy staff to run them, not because of a government lockdown.