President Joe Biden got it right: The new coronavirus variant omicron is “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic.” The travel restrictions the U.S. and 70 other nations imposed will buy scientists time to further understand what risks omicron poses at this extended stage of the pandemic. For now, it’s time to double down on what already works: Vaccinations, booster shots and wearing masks in crowded indoor settings.
Biden set the right tone at the White House on Monday, dismissing the need for widespread lockdowns and urging a defensive posture instead. The World Health Organization said South Africa first reported omicron on Nov. 24, and much about the variant is unknown. As of Tuesday, it had been detected in at least 19 countries, though not in the U.S. While its arrival here is inevitable, the travel bans and cooperative efforts at the international level will help to isolate any outbreak. That’s why it’s essential to use the coming weeks to expand vaccinations, increase the number of boosters and to take sensible health precautions in public. It’s understandable that Americans have COVID-19 fatigue. But these measures will all help slow the virus’ spread, which is a first, essential step for returning to a sense of normalcy.
The administration was wise for taking a measured approach. While scientists are concerned that omicron could be more contagious than other variants, and the vaccines’ effectiveness against it is unknown, those answers are not expected for weeks, and there’s no immediate basis for locking down society or the economy. Many public health experts are confident that existing vaccines are up for the fight, and manufacturers have promised in a worst-case scenario that they could quickly produce a boutique vaccine. What’s more, there’s no shortage of vaccines available to eligible Americans, and no delays in the pipeline for administering shots. This is a moment for suiting up, not shutting down, and for reprising the sensible precautions we’re familiar with now that the busy holiday season is here.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention underscored this messaging campaign by strengthening its recommendation for boosters to include all American adults. Though it previously approved boosters for all adults, the agency had urged them primarily for those 50 years and older. While 70 percent of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of vaccine, only 21 percent of those fully vaccinated had received a booster as of Tuesday.
The discovery in South Africa is another reminder that a global pandemic knows no borders. With vaccination rates across much of Africa still in the single digits, richer nations have a responsibility and a self-interest in making the vaccines more widely available. The U.S. has pledged to donate more than 1 billion doses for global use, and has donated 275 million doses so far. But these nations also need logistical help to store and administer the vaccines, and outreach efforts to overcome vaccine skeptics and those in hard-to-reach areas.
Federal health officials said Tuesday they were expanding a surveillance program at some large, U.S. airports as part of an effort to detect what could be the first cases of omicron in the country. The government is doing its homework, and its resistance to overreact should build public confidence in any new steps ahead. But the most effective tools at our disposal are already here, free and readily available. Getting the vaccine and booster, wearing a mask in public and taking other sensible precautions are the surest way to a safer holiday season and a much brighter 2022.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.