Omicron Is About To Make Americans Act Immorally, Inappropriately

A friend called me for medical advice two weeks ago. He’s single, in his thirties and generally healthy, but he’d developed a dry cough with mild congestion. After a self-administered Covid-19 test turned up negative results, he remained suspicious he could be infected.

He was set to fly west in a couple of days for a conference and dreaded the thought of infecting other passengers. I recommended a PCR test if he wanted to be more certain. When the lab results came back positive, he spent the next five days at home alone (per CDC guidance).  

If you were in his shoes, chances are you, too, would make a reasonable effort to avoid infecting others. In the near future, that won’t be the case.

Americans are playing it safe—for now

A whopping 91% of Americans no longer consider Covid-19 a “serious crisis.” Social distancing has reached a low point as public-health restrictions continue to ease up.

Yet, there’s still one aspect of the pandemic Americans are taking very seriously.

As a society, we still expect people who test positive for Covid-19 to stay home and minimize contact with others. As a result of these expectations, 4 in 10 workers (including 6 in 10 low-income employees) have missed work in 2022. Overall, the nation’s No. 1 concern related to Omicron is “spreading the virus to people who are at higher risk of serious illness.”

Most Americans are eager to move on from the pandemic, but those who are sick continue to avoid actions that may potentially spread the virus.

Call it what you will—group think, peer pressure or the fear of violating cultural taboos—people don’t want to put others in harm’s way. That’s true, according to polls, regardless of one’s party affiliation or vaccination status.

What’s immoral today will be appropriate tomorrow

Don’t get used to these polite and socially conscious behaviors. All of it is about to change in the not-distant future. Let me paint a picture of tomorrow’s new normal:

  • A factory worker tests positive over the weekend for Covid-19 and comes to work on Monday without a mask, informing no one of his infection. 
  • A vacationer with mild Covid-19 symptoms refuses to postpone her spa weekend, availing herself of massages, facials and group yoga classes.
  • A couple plans an indoor wedding for 200-plus, knowing the odds are likely that dozens of people will get infected and that some of those guests will be elderly and immunosuppressed.

These actions, which seem inappropriate and immoral now, will become typical. It’s not that people will suddenly become less empathetic or more callous. They’ll simply be adjusting to new social mores, brought about by a unique viral strain and an inevitable evolution in American culture

A crash course in a unique virus

To understand why people will behave in ways that seem so unacceptable today, you must understand how the Omicron variant spreads compared to other viruses.

Scientists now know that Omicron (and its many decimal-laden strains: BA.2, BA.2.12.1, BA.4, BA.5, etc.) is the most infectious, fastest-spreading respiratory virus in world history. The Mayo Clinic calls this Covid-19 variant “hyper-contagious.”

“A single case could give rise to six cases after four days, 36 cases after eight days, and 216 cases after 12 days,” according to a report in Scientific American. As a result, researchers predict that 100 million Americans will become infected with Omicron this year alone—via new infections, reinfections and vaccination breakthroughs. 

In addition to Omicron’s high transmissibility, the virus is also season-less. Whereas influenza arrives each winter and exits in the spring, Americans will continue to experience high levels of Covid-19 infection year-round—at least for the foreseeable future.

With its 60-plus mutations, immense transmissibility and lack of seasonality, Omicron is an exceptional virus: one that will infect not only our respiratory systems but also our culture.

Over time, Omicron’s unique characteristics will drive Americans to deny and ignore the risks of infection. In the near future, they’ll make decisions and take actions that they’d presently deem wrong.

A culture shock is coming

Culture—which comprises the shared values, norms and beliefs of a group of people—doesn’t change because someone decides it should. It evolves because circumstances change. 

The pandemic has no doubt been a culture-changing event and, as the circumstances of Covid-19 have changed, so too have our underlying values, beliefs and behaviors.

If 100 million Americans (one-third of the population) were to become infected with Omicron this year, we can expect that everyone will know someone with the disease. And when dozens of our friends or colleagues say they’ve had it, we will begin to see transmission as inevitable. And since, statistically, most Americans won’t die from Omicron, people will see infection as relatively harmless and they’ll be willing to drop their guard.

We’ll see more and more people going to work even when they’re infected. We’ll see more people on trains and planes, coughing and congested, having never taken a Covid-19 test. And we’ll see large, indoor celebrations taking place without any added safety measures, despite the risks to the most vulnerable attendees.

Amid these changes, health officials will continue to urge caution, just as they have for more than two years. But it won’t make a difference. Culture eats science for breakfast. Americans will increasingly follow the herd and stop heeding public-safety warnings.

The process of change has begun

Cultural shifts happen in steps. First, a few people break the rules and then others follow.

Recall my friend, the one who took two tests out of an abundance of caution. Next time, perhaps he’ll decide he’d rather not miss the conference. Perhaps when he returns home, he will tell his friends that he felt sick the whole trip. Perhaps they’ll ask, “Do you think you might have had Covid?” And perhaps he will reply: “What difference would it have made? I’m fully vaccinated and boosted.

And so, it will go. The next time someone in his social circle feels under the weather, he or she won’t even bother to do the first test.

This change process has already begun. Take the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, for example. Last year, the event was cancelled. This year, guests had to show proof of vaccination or a negative same-day test. However, that rule didn’t apply to staff at the hotel who worked the event. Unsurprisingly, several high-profile attendees got Covid-19 but, so far, no reports of anyone being hospitalized. A year from now, assuming no major mutations cause the virus to become more lethal, we can expect all restrictions will be dropped.

Culture dictates how people behave. It influences their thoughts and actions. It alters their values and beliefs. The unique characteristics of Omicron will lead people to ignore the harm it inflicts. They won’t act with malicious intent. They’ll just be oblivious to the consequences of their actions. That’s how culture works.

How America’s massive COVID death toll came to feel “normal”

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As the US approaches the grim statistic of one million deaths from COVID, journalist Ed Yong’s latest piece in The Atlantic takes a sobering look at how numb we’ve become to that astronomically high toll. In the early days of the pandemic, predictions of a few hundred thousand American deaths seemed shocking, but recent milestones of 800K and 900K lives lost have ticked by with little public attention.

Yong blames the invisibility of the virus: its worst impacts have been disproportionately concentrated among the disadvantaged—making it possible for COVID to more easily “disappear” from the lives of the healthy and economically advantaged. Case in point: while three percent of Americans have lost a close family member to COVID-19, the virus has taken a much larger toll on people of color, the elderly, and those with underlying health conditions.

The Gist: The pandemic has rendered us numb to the ongoing tragic loss of life, leading us to accept over 1,500 COVID deaths each day as “normal”.

As Yong points out, it’s hard to imagine we could turn a blind eye to this number of Americans perishing every day, compared to the number who perish from hurricanes or other weather disasters, for example. While permanent memorials are built for soldiers and victims of terror attacks, they are rarely erected for victims or medical heroes of pandemics, despite the far greater death toll. 

While the pandemic is still far from over, we must ensure the difficult lessons learned are not forgotten by future generations—as has been the case with previous pandemics.   

Facing a “new normal” of higher labor costs

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The price of higher labor costs in the consumer discretionary sector -  AlphaSense

Attending a recent executive retreat with one of our member health systems, we heard the CEO make a statement that really resonated with us. Referring to the current workforce crisis—pervasive shortages, pressure to increase compensation, outsized reliance on contract labor to fill critical gaps—the CEO made the assertion that this situation isn’t temporary. Rather, it’s the “new normal”, at least for the next several years.

The Great Resignation that’s swept across the American economy in the wake of COVID has not spared healthcare; every system we talk to is facing alarmingly high vacancy rates as nurses, technicians, and other staff head for the exits. The CEO made a compelling case that the labor cost structure of the system has reset at a level between 20 and 30 percent more expensive than before the pandemic, and executives should begin to turn attention away from stop-gap measures (retention bonuses and the like) to more permanent solutions (rethinking care models, adjusting staffing ratios upward, implementing process automation).

That seemed like an important insight to us. It’s increasingly clear as we approach a third year of the pandemic: there is no “post-COVID world” in which things will go back to normal. Rather, we’ll have to learn to live in the “new normal,” revisiting basic assumptions about how, where, and by whom care is delivered.

If hospital labor costs have indeed permanently reset at a higher level, that implies the need for a radical restructuring of the fundamental economic model of the health systemrazor-thin margins won’t allow for business to continue as usual. Long overdue, perhaps, and a painful evolution for sure—but one that could bring the industry closer to the vision of “right care, right place, right time” promised by population health advocates for over a decade.

The pandemic’s coming new normal

Photo illustration of the Freedom from Want image by Norman Rockwell with all the participants of the dinner wearing surgical masks.

As both vaccinations and acquired immunity spread, life will likely settle into a new normal that will resemble pre-COVID-19 days— with some major twists.

The big picture: While hospitalizations and deaths are tamped down, the novel coronavirus should recede as a mortal threat to the world. But a lingering pool of unvaccinated people — and the virus’ own ability to mutate — will ensure SARS-CoV-2 keeps circulating at some level, meaning some precautions will be kept in place for years.

Driving the news: On Tuesday, Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky told CNBC that people might well need a new coronavirus vaccine annually in the years ahead, much as they do now for the flu.

  • Gorsky’s comments were one of the clearest signals that even as the number of vaccinated people rises, the mutability of SARS-CoV-2 means the virus will almost certainly be with us in some form for years to come.

Be smartThat sounds like bad news — and indeed, it’s much less ideal than a world in which vaccination or infection conferred close to lifelong immunity and SARS-CoV-2 could be definitively conquered like smallpox.

  • With more contagious variants spreading rapidly, “the next 12 weeks are likely to be the darkest days of the pandemic,” says Michael Osterholm, the director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.
  • But the apparent effectiveness of the vaccines in preventing hospitalizations and death from COVID-19 — even in the face of new variants — points the way toward a milder future for the pandemic, albeit one that may be experienced very differently around the world.

Details: From studying what happened after new viruses emerged in the past, scientists predict SARS-CoV-2 will eventually become endemic, most likely in a seasonal pattern similar to the kind of coronaviruses that cause the common cold.

  • That’s nothing to sneeze at — literally, it will make us sneeze — but as immunity levels accumulate throughout the population, our experience of the virus will attenuate, and we’ll be highly unlikely to experience the severe death tolls and overloaded hospitals that marked much of the past year.

Yes, but: The existence of a stubborn pool of Americans who say they won’t get vaccinated — as well as the fact that it may take far longer for children, whom the vaccines have yet to be tested on, to get coverage — will give the virus longer legs than it would otherwise have.

  • “This will be with us forever,” says Osterholm. “That’s not even a debate at this point.”

What’s next: This means we can expect the K-shaped recovery that has marked the pandemic to continue, says Ben Pring, who leads Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work.

  • With the virus likely to remain a threat, even if a diminished one, “those who are more stuck in the analog world are really going to continue to struggle,” he says.
  • Health security will also become a more ingrained part of daily life and work, which means temperature checks, masks, frequent COVID-19 testing and even vaccine passports for travel are here to stay.

The catch: That’s not all bad — the measures put in place to slow COVID-19 have stomped the flu and other seasonal respiratory viruses, and if we can hold onto some of those benefits in the future, we can save tens of thousands of lives and billions of dollars.

  • If the inequalities seen in the early phase of the vaccine rollout persist, COVID-19 could become a disease of the poor and disadvantaged, argues Mark Sendak, the co-founder and scientific adviser for Greenlight Ready, a COVID-19 resilience system that grew out of Duke Health.
  • Sendak points to the example of HIV, a disease that is entirely controllable with drugs but continues to exert a disproportionate toll on Black Americans, who take pre-exposure prophylactic medicine at much lower rates.

“If we go back to ‘normal,’ then we have failed.”

— Mark Sendak

What to watch: Whether the vaccine rollout can be adapted to reach hard to find and hard to persuade populations.

  • The Biden administration announced yesterday that it will start delivering vaccines directly to community health centers next week in an effort to promote more equity in the vaccine distribution process.
  • As the administration rolls out new COVID-19 plans, it needs to “invest in the community health care personnel” who can ensure that no one is left behind, says Sendak.

The bottom line: While SARS-CoV-2 has proven it can adapt to a changing environment, so can we. But we have to do so in a way that is fairer than our experience of the pandemic has been so far.

Approaching a “new normal” for healthcare volumes?

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Eight months into COVID-19, national healthcare volumes are still lagging pre-pandemic levels. The graphic above shows highlights from Strata Decision Technology’s recent analysis of volume data from 275 hospitals nationwide between March and August, and reveals that inpatient, and especially emergency department, volumes are still well below 2019 levels. 

This isn’t surprising. Consumer confidence in healthcare facilities hasn’t changed much since April, with many still reporting feeling unsafe in emergency care and hospital settings. Even some outpatient providers are still seeing lags compared to last year.

While outpatient volume as a whole has rebounded, critical outpatient diagnostics, including mammographies and colonoscopies, are still down significantly, leading to reduced downstream oncology and surgical volume as well, at least in the short-term.
 
COVID-19 is also accelerating the outmigration of high-margin surgical procedures like total knee replacements. Comparing a two-week period in August to the same period last year reveals that inpatient knee procedures are down by nearly 40 percent, while similar outpatient procedures are up over 80 percent.

As Strata Executive Director Steve Lefar said in a recent conversation with Gist Healthcare Daily’s Alex Olgin, these data expose “an elasticity of demand the healthcare industry never even knew existed” and that “the demand curve for healthcare services may be permanently adjusted because people are just changing their behaviors.” 

While we expect volumes will ebb and flow over coming months in step with the local severity of COVID-19, health systems should plan for a longer-term “new normal” with volume below pre-pandemic levels.