Ya think? The country that gifted the world COVID-19 in the first place remains convinced that a zero-COVID strategy can still work to end the pandemic … all experience to the contrary. In an effort to keep the Winter Olympics on track, China has reverted back to policies that failed spectacularly to contain the pandemic in the past.
If that sounds familiar, watch this and read on:
Questions about the viability of China’s “zero Covid” strategy as the nation takes increasingly extreme measures to contain relatively small clusters of cases. All 13 million residents of Xi’an are confined to their homes & 30K in quarantine for 206 cases. @ryanobles @CNNnewsroom pic.twitter.com/Qma68eClo7
— Will Ripley (@willripleyCNN) December 27, 2021
This is precisely how China reacted in January 2020, locking down Wuhan and then expanding the lockdown repeatedly in the days that followed. A month later, the Communist Party canceled their parliament in order to keep COVID from spreading to Beijing, to no avail. How did that work to contain the virus? Answer: badly, as the rest of the world experienced first-hand ever since. This particular virus is too virulent to be contained by such measures.
So why return to this strategy, which will create another economic crater for Xi Jinping? Apparently Xi has no other containment strategy, which seems especially curious, as China insists that its two vaccines are effective against serious illness and death. If this is an Omicron surge, it makes even less sense except as a tacit admission of their vaccines’ relative ineffectiveness. And the effort to lock down millions of people puts in serious question the idea that only 206 cases are in play at this point, too. The only source for that data is Beijing, and they’re not exactly known for scientific transparency, especially on COVID-19 issues.
The clear reason for China’s attempt to maintain the fiction of zero-COVID possibility is clear — they want to protect their Olympics from cancelation. Xi has already watched the propaganda value drain out of the games as Western nations impose their “diplomatic boycott.” The monetary value is all they have left, and if a new wave of reported cases in China gets high enough, countries may pull out for health reasons rather than moral reasons, as strong as the latter might be.
However, China’s not the only country that clings to zero-COVID policies. States within the US have begun reimposing restrictions on public commerce and education again, thanks to a wave of new cases that might end up setting new records:
The average daily number of new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. has surged to more than 176,000 people — the highest it’s has been in nearly a year. pic.twitter.com/7xzNQ6VGwm
— CBS Mornings (@CBSMornings) December 27, 2021
Cases are going through the roof, but what about hospitalizations? They’re up, but not nearly by the same amplitude:
Note that the 7-day national average already has begun to curl down a bit, although that could certain change. But when we look at the regional data, the seasonal aspect of COVID-19 hospitalizations becomes clear. HHS Region 4, which covers mainly the deep South, has barely seen a blip in hospitalizations:
The same is true for HHS Region 6, covering the southern central states (Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana):
It’s even flatter in Region 9, which covers California, Nevada, and Arizona, where the October spike never materialized at all. And note well that this is while Omicron has overtaken Delta as the most common variant by far, while unfortunately not yet crowding Delta out entirely. The national hospitalization spike is being driven by regions 1, 3, 5, and to a smaller extent 7 — all cold-weather states where activities get pushed indoors, the place where transmission occurs almost exclusively. (Worth noting: Regions 2, 6, and 10 are relatively cold-weather states without spikes in hospitalization at the moment.)
What should we learn from that? For one thing, encourage people to conduct activities outdoors where possible, but more to the point, COVID is going to be a seasonal disease. It will hit the northern states in the winters and the southern states in the summers. And now that Pandora’s Box has been opened since at least January 2020, there is no possibility for a zero-COVID life, as scientists have been warning for quite a while now:
Early in the pandemic, many people seized on the hope that Covid-19 could be stopped in its tracks and buried for good once vaccines rolled out.
But hope for a zero-Covid country fizzled for most scientists long ago.
“Everyone has stopped talking about getting rid of Covid,” Dr. Elizabeth Halloran, an epidemiologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, said of her fellow researchers. “It’s not going away, and that means it’s going to be endemic.”
Most scientists now expect the virus to circulate indefinitely with lower and more predictable case numbers — a status known as endemicity. That would make the coronavirus like many other viruses that humanity has learned to deal with, such as influenza. It remains unclear, however, whether the coronavirus will remain a greater health risk than other endemic respiratory viruses.
There are some indications that government and public health officials are already operating with that idea in mind. The latest wave of the omicron variant has served not only as a reminder that the coronavirus is still mutating in unexpected ways, but also as a signpost: Federal messaging and local government action, which once focused on stopping the virus’s spread and relied upon extreme measures like local lockdowns, is now centered on reducing risk and allowing the vaccinated and the boosted to go on with relatively normal lives with precautions.
Actually, the proper and rational response to endemicity would be to allow everyone to live normal lives and to take ownership of their own risk choices. The US has effective vaccines that do what most vaccines do — they protect against serious illness and death. If you get vaccinated, you shouldn’t live your life in a hole. If you don’t get vaccinated, you shouldn’t expect others to mitigate your risks for you. Now that we know the vaccinated are vectors for Omicron and suspect the same is true of Delta, there’s no need for making these distinctions in public access any longer. Community transmission will occur regardless; the only question is assumption of risk at this point, which has actually been the case ever since the vaccines became plentiful enough to put an end to their rationing. Lockdowns are a wildly irrational response in China, but Xi doesn’t have a monopoly on irrational public policy responses.
Finally, the metric for public policy regarding COVID should be hospitalizations, not cases. As testing ramps up, we will likely see significant disconnects between the two, especially with Omicron. Cases aren’t a public risk any longer; the issue is hospital capacity, so let’s measure the metric that matters.