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FROMA HARROP: Omicron should not dim our lights

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The screaming headlines about New York City closing down again in response to the highly infectious new COVID-19 variant are premature. Sure, some things are dialing back, witness the cancellation of the Radio City Rockettes’ “Christmas Spectacular.” The reality is that the surrounding streets are clogged with celebrants viewing the store windows and the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center.

December 2021 is not December 2020, when America’s holiday season turned eerily quiet. This year, the governors of Colorado, New Jersey and Maryland — two Democrats and a moderate Republican, for those who keep score — are opposing renewed restrictions.

And for a good reason. The threat is not gone, especially with the highly infectious Omicron variant on the loose. But it’s a lot less scary now.

In New York City, 83% of residents 12 years and older are fully vaccinated, meaning they’ve had two shots. They still remain at lower risk of serious disease. For those who’ve gotten the third shot, the risks appear to be no higher than they were before Omicron, when two jabs would do the job. As for those who haven’t gotten any shots, they’re on their own.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the U.S. supply of mRNA vaccines — that is, the highly effective Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna versions — is “abundant.” This is a far cry from last December, when the first vaccine (Pfizer) came out but was very hard for nonmedical workers to obtain.

Rather than coercing the public, the vaccine mandates are seen as freeing most New Yorkers to largely resume their lives with very little fear of hospitalization or death, even in the event of a breakthrough infection. It doesn’t matter if they’re now dining next to tourists from Idaho or Florida, states that refused to institute vaccine mandates. The people at the next table had to show their COVID-19 vax cards or they couldn’t get in.

Early reports suggest that Omicron, while far more transmissible than other variants, tends to produce milder symptoms in the infected. Even though Omicron has exploded the COVID-19 infection numbers in South Africa, hospitalizations there are way down. Other factors could be in play, but evidence has yet to emerge that Omicron is as nasty as the Delta variant.

Omicron has raised the number of hospitalizations in New York, not because it’s shown itself to be especially deadly but because it has spread wildly. The recent surge in the infected has fatigued hospitals, but thanks to the city’s high vaccination rate, its number of COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 residents is less than half that of the United States as a whole.

There’s other reassuring news. Moderna says it will soon have a booster shot tailored for Omicron (if it’s needed). And new treatments are rolling out for those already infected. The most promising one, from Pfizer, has been found to work 88% of the time in preventing hospitalization.

Given these developments, it would behoove the authorities in states with high vaccination rates (and restrictions on the unvaccinated) to let young children, whom the virus almost never hospitalizes, stay in their classrooms. And they should desist in backing panicky moves to stop a pandemic that was unstoppable a year ago but not now.

Yes, they will have to deal with new strains on hospitals and their workers. But they will be sending the wrong message if they let the unvaccinated spoil another year for those who’ve done the right things. For most of us, Omicron remains a concern but not a good reason to dim the lights this holiday season.

Discipline has its rewards. Those who have done the hard part should enjoy the relief it has delivered.


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