WASHINGTON—From reactions I’ve heard, when the U.S. State Department elevated its travel recommendation for Canada this week to “Level Four: Do Not Travel,” some Canadians took it as an insult.
They’re fine ones to judge, aren’t they? Have they taken a look in the mirror?
But it isn’t like that, I don’t think. The U.S. currently has about 80 countries on its do not travel list, which is meant as advice, rather than a rule. The advisory doesn’t change any border rules. It’s doesn’t ban travel or tighten restrictions. It’s just an acknowledgment that COVID-19 is widespread across Canada right now — which, if I’m reading the work of my colleagues at the Star correctly, is a pretty accurate assessment.
Meanwhile, Canada has the entire world covered with its global travel advisory to “avoid any non-essential travel outside Canada.”
For Canadians looking at the pandemic situation in the U.S. as an indicator of what comes next, there are alternating doses of good news and bad news.
The first bit of bad news is that cases, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 are as bad or worse than they were during last year’s peak. Over the past two weeks, according to tracking data from the New York Times, the U.S. has averaged upwards of 780,000 new cases a day, more than 1.5 times as many as two weeks ago. Hospitalizations across the country are up 82 per cent over the same period. Deaths are up by more than half.
The head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Janet Woodcock, said this week before Congress, “Most people are going to get COVID.” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the famous head of the National Institutes of Health, said something similar: “Omicron will find just about everybody.”
It sure looks that way.
The good news is that in much of the northeast, where Omicron first caused massive outbreaks in the U.S., infection rates may have peaked. Here in Washington, D.C., confirmed cases are down 17 per cent over the past two weeks — even while schools and restaurants have remained open.
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But the bad news here is that hospitalizations continue to skyrocket (which might be expected, since hospitalizations are a lagging indicator). It’s somewhat reassuring that most area hospitals report having ICU capacity. Test positivity rates remain sky high at 25 per cent. Dr. Bob Watcher, the chair of the University of California San Francisco’s medicine department, suggests that in San Francisco it’s fair to assume one in 10 people has it — and many other experts have suggested actual case rates of Omicron are far higher than the confirmed reports indicate.
Some more good news is there is plenty of proof — in the U.S. and abroad — that vaccinations, and particularly boosters, offer robust protection against the severe cases of COVID-19 that can lead to hospitalization or death.
But there’s some bad news with that: the northeastern cities where Omicron seems to have peaked are among the most highly vaccinated regions of the country. In other words, there might be reason to expect that the regions where Omicron is still spreading quickly are places where fewer people are vaccinated. And in the rural areas of many states where vaccination rates are low, there tend to be fewer hospitals and less ICU capacity.
This Omicron wave, in the U.S., could get a lot uglier yet.
Many U.S. commentators (and, anecdotally, many Americans you encounter) seem to be interpreting Fauci and Woodcock’s warnings about how Omicron is spreading as confirmation of a kind of COVID-19 fatalism: if it’s coming for all of us, why bother with any precautions? This feeds the “I’m so over this, whether or not it’s over me” attitude I wrote about before the holidays.
Yet the doctors’ point is that given the prevalence and transmissibility of this variant — and perhaps those to come, who knows? — it is important to get vaccinated and boosted to protect against serious infection, and to wear high-quality masks to slow the spread so hospitals can keep up. This seems sensible enough.
One final bit of good news: vaccination rates have been slowly, steadily climbing. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 63 per cent of Americans have now been fully vaccinated (67 per cent of those eligible), and more than half of those who are vaccinated have received a booster shot. And people are still out there getting their first dose: over the past month, while roughly 16 million Americans got boosters, a further 8.8 million received their first dose of the vaccine. Seventy-five per cent of Americans have now received at least one dose of the vaccine.
Those vaccination rates are roughly 10 per cent lower than Canada’s (on both full- and one-dose fronts), but they represent progress.
Still, if the State Department issued travel advisories to Americans about locations in the U.S., it’s likely the whole country would be stamped with a DO NOT TRAVEL designation. It wouldn’t be an insult. It’s just good advice, based on the circumstances.
Edward Keenan is the Star’s Washington Bureau chief. He covers U.S. politics and current affairs. Reach him via email: [email protected]
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