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“Reinfection Wave”: Ed Yong on BA.5 Omicron Variant Spread Amid Mask Mandate Rollbacks, Funding Cuts

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COVID-19 cases are rising as the BA.5 Omicron variant puts more people in the hospital amid high rates of reinfection, which is the focus of a new piece by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ed Yong in The Atlantic that is headlined “Is BA.5 the 'Reinfection Wave'?” Yong warns the premature rollback of protective policies, like mask mandates and public health funding, has left people more vulnerable to reinfection. Meanwhile, a concerning number of Americans continue to distrust the vaccine. Rather than focusing on community-based measures that will protect the most vulnerable first, “the Biden administration’s posture has been moving toward an era of individual responsibility,” says Yong.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

We’re now about two-and-a-half years into the coronavirus pandemic, and health experts said this week the most infectious and transmissible COVID-19 is now a global health emergency. This is World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaking Tuesday at a virtual news conference in Geneva.

TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS: I’m concerned that cases of COVID-19 continue to rise, putting further pressure on stretched health systems and health workers, and also concerned about the increasing trend of deaths. The Emergency Committee on COVID-19 met on Friday last week and concluded that the virus remains a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Ed Yong, Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer at The Atlantic. His new piece is headlined “Is BA.5 the 'Reinfection Wave'?”

Ed, welcome back to Democracy Now! Well, is it? Explain exactly what it is and the level of hospitalization and deaths.

ED YONG: So, BA.5 is the latest version of the Omicron family of variants to hit the U.S. It is displacing its predecessor, BA.2, and it is indeed causing a surge. BA.5’s most important property is its ability to sneak past some of the immune defenses acquired by people either who have been vaccinated before or who have experienced — who have been infected by earlier variants. And that means that everyone is now a little less protected than they were a few months ago. Some people who have even recently been infected are getting infected again. Now, this doesn’t mean that previous immunity is back down to zero — far from it. People who have some degree of immunity, from past infection or vaccination, still have some protection against infection even from BA.5, but it’s less than before, which is why we’re seeing more reinfections now than before.

The good news is that the most severe outcomes, things like being sick enough to warrant an intubator, needing oxygen and, of course, dying, the vaccines do seem to still be protecting against those. But it’s still important to prevent infections. I think that a lot of this country, including its highest political echelons, have seemed to have forgotten that basic goal. Preventing infections is really important for preventing long COVID, for sparing the healthcare system, for all this and more. And because of that, BA.5 is still very much a problem.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, could you explain, Ed, why you think the Biden administration has made the decisions that it has with respect to COVID and restrictions, and why it’s so important — I mean, you’ve said a little right now — why it’s so important to focus on infections, when, as you say, vaccination and prior infection do provide some degree of immunity against severe illness?

ED YONG: Yeah. I think for much of the last year-plus, the Biden administration’s posture has been moving towards an era of individual responsibility. It really is down to you specifically to take actions that will protect yourself, rather than what I think is true, which is that it’s the government’s job to protect the health of entire populations. This is indeed the goal of public health more generally. It’s to protect entire communities, and the most vulnerable among them first. I don’t think that this is what the administration is currently doing. And it has taken up this posture of preventing the most severe outcomes — so, severe hospitalizations and deaths — and to have taken its foot off the pedal in terms of preventing infections.

But preventing infections still really matters. And there are loads of reasons for that. Firstly, people can still get long COVID. People can be disabled by months or even years of lingering symptoms. And often within such cases, these were, quote-unquote, “mild infections.” They were infections that weren’t sending people to hospital, but were nonetheless incapacitating them.

There’s also the fact that the healthcare system is still kind of broken, right? It has been severely infected by the last two-plus years of the pandemic. A lot of healthcare workers have resigned, and those who are remaining in their jobs are exhausted and demoralized. This is not a system that can handle the same kind of pressures that it could several years ago. And it cannot [inaudible] more and more surges of the kind that we are still experiencing.

AMY GOODMAN: A New York Times article —

ED YONG: And there’s the fact that more — sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you — a New York Times article earlier this week was headlined “As Sixth Covid Wave Hits, Many New Yorkers Shrug It Off.” Your article argues it is a terrible approach with a city as densely populated as New York City, where everyone uses public transportation, all public spaces are crowded. Talk about the kind of protective measures that are needed. I was in the subway last night. Through my mask, I said, “You know, you should be wearing a mask.” More than half of the people weren’t. People looked at me blankly, maybe because they were just listening to their headphones and couldn’t hear me. But, I mean, it is a complete change in a city where actually people were wearing masks. And it’s actually still required in the subway, but people have just given up on it.

ED YONG: Yeah. And I think that there is this vicious cycle going on where our political leaders and, indeed, our media, as per the article you mentioned, have claimed that everyone is past the pandemic. People then rightly think, “OK, we’ve been told that it’s over,” and those two things feed off each other. And yet, until pretty recently, support for things like masking, support for measures that would protect large groups of people was actually still very high. You know, there’s been this sort of self-defeating process where we’ve told ourselves people are past it, and people are like, “We’re past it? OK, I guess we’re past it.”

The measures that we need are still the same as before, regardless of whether it’s BA.5 or BA.2 or the original Omicron. Firstly, vaccinations obviously are still massively important. Not enough people are boosted. And that remains a crucial part of protecting all of us from infection and severe outcomes. Masking remains really important. And I think mandates can still help. Like, we need people to be masking up in public places where people are gathering. Things like ventilation have really never been taken into account seriously throughout the pandemic. This virus spreads through the air between people. And we need better policies that can improve ventilation in all kinds of public settings.

Instead of actually pushing for these kinds of measures, as well as things like testing, paid sick leave and other social supports, a lot of that is going away. COVID funding has been stalled in Congress for a long time. And so, even some of the meager protections that we already have, sort of the testing infrastructure and vaccine infrastructure that was in place, are starting to be dismantled right now.

And yet, as we’ve seen, this is just going to keep happening, right? We are now locked in this perpetual cat-and-mouse game between the virus and our existing immunity: Our immunity builds up across the population, a new variant arises to erode it, immunity will build up again, a new variant will emerge again. We’re going to see this keep on happening. And we either choose to continue ignoring and forfeiting this game, or we will finally — or, to finally take it seriously. Those are our choices. And we can still choose to be better at this.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ed, could you talk about — do you think that one of the priorities — I mean, it’s still the case, rather shockingly, that one in three Americans are still not vaccinated at all. Do you think that that should also be a priority? And also, I mean, obviously, much of the world outside the Euro-American world has yet to receive sufficient vaccines to vaccinate their populations. What role does that play in the development and spread of these variants and subvariants? If more people are vaccinated, will there be fewer variants?

ED YONG: I think it will help. Vaccines, as I said, are really important. But I don’t think that — I think a mistake that this administration has made for at least over a year is to assume that vaccines alone are going to do all the work for us. They do a lot of the heavy lifting, but they’re not going to bring the pandemic to an end by itself — by themselves. We need to put in all the other measures that people have been calling for for the longest time. We need cleaner air. We need a stronger social safety net so people can take care of their own health without risking the health of their families or their co-workers. We have needed all of those things from the start.

And I think America’s problem is that it assumes that it can just tech its way out of these problems, that once it develops the vaccine, things are fine. As we’ve seen, you can have great vaccines, and they’re not going to make the difference that they should if there’s a population that simply doesn’t trust them, that won’t decide to get them, where getting them is difficult. You know, it’s this Field of Dreams approach, where we just, like — we say, “If we build it, they will come.” And if you have a population with weak social safety nets, with weak trust in each other and in government, that’s just not going to work. There’s a sort of a fundamental deficit in American society that needs to be addressed, like right now, to make sure that these kinds of biomedical interventions actually work in the way that people hope that they will do.

AMY GOODMAN: Ed, we are going to continue after the show to do a post-show with you on your new book. Your new book is just out. It’s called An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us. But give us a tease, a synopsis. You also wrote a piece for The [New York Times] called “How Animals See Themselves.”

ED YONG: So, the book is about the wondrous ways in which animals perceive the world around us. Every creature, whether it’s a human or an elephant or a dog, is trapped in its own sensory bubble, the Umwelt. It can perceive certain sights and sounds and textures, but those are going to be very different to what other creatures are experiencing. So I can’t smell the world in the way my dog Typo can. I can’t sense the magnetic fields of the Earth in the way the sparrows outside my window can. I can’t sense electric fields in the way a shark or a platypus can.

This book is about expanding people’s idea of the world around them to show what other animals can perceive. And by that, I hope that it shows a world that thought they knew in a completely new and magical light. Like, when I walk the neighborhood with my dog, I see or I get to understand all the things that he’s smelling that I don’t, and that means that even mundane aspects of my life become newly magical.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ed, we’re going to continue this discussion, because the book is magical. Ed Yong, Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer at The Atlantic. His new book is called An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us. And we’ll to your piece in The Atlantic, that latest piece, “Is BA.5 the 'Reinfection Wave'?”

That does it for our show. You can get that interview at democracynow.org. Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Camille Baker, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Mary Conlon. Our executive director, Julie Crosby. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Stay safe.

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