We’re fortunate to be privy to many of the big, complex strategic issues being discussed in health system boardrooms and executive meetings these days: care model innovations, new investments in technology, the digital revolution in care, market-shaping partnerships, the future of the healthcare workforce, and on and on. It’s a precarious and strategically critical moment for incumbent systems in many ways. But we’re often reminded that the nuts and bolts of running hospital facilities still demands attention, even at a board level.
Case in point: the perennial discussion about what otherwise seems like a minor issue—parking. You’d be shocked how often parking comes up in board-level discussions (partly because many board members are older, active users of hospital services, who spend significant time looking for a place to park). We’ve been witness to knock-down, drag-out arguments about whether to charge for parking, and why more parking isn’t available for patients, physicians, and others.
At first it seems like a trivial issue, but of course it isn’t. In reality, it’s a tangible example of how much patient experience matters in the design and operation of healthcare delivery. We’ve also found it’s a useful analogy in explaining to leaders why “frictionless access” should be at the heart of digital patient experience as well—a poorly-designed digital “front door” can be just as frustrating as not being able to find an inexpensive and convenient place to park before a medical appointment.
Delivering reliable, affordable, high-quality care is critical, but getting the small experiential details (like parking) right can be incredibly impactful. Next time you visit a medical facility, think about what the parking experience is telling you about how “patient-centered” your provider really is.
The fact that poliovirus was detected in New York City wastewater samples as far back as April of this year shouldn’t be surprising, as the virus likely has been circulating for longer and more widely than previously believed, several experts told MedPage Today.
“I think you’re gonna see over the next weeks more and more reports of poliovirus in wastewater elsewhere,” said Vincent Racaniello, PhD, a virologist at Columbia University in New York City.
Poliovirus probably still circulated in the U.S. after 2000, when officials stopped giving the oral polio vaccine, he said. That version protects against paralysis and provides short-term protection against intestinal infection from poliovirus.
The transition to injectable polio vaccine, which is equally as effective against paralysis but not against intestinal infection, meant that the U.S. population was more susceptible to transmitting vaccine-associated poliovirus, he explained.
This circulation is likely occasional and sporadic, he said, but the threat to vulnerable populations is still high.
“Here’s the thing: polio is here in the U.S. It’s not gone,” Racaniello said. “It’s in the wastewater. It could contaminate you, so if you’re not vaccinated, that could be a problem.”
Calls for Nationwide Surveillance
Racaniello said there’s value in learning more about the circulation of the virus, especially for communities with low vaccination rates.
The first step to understanding how long and how broadly poliovirus is circulating, he said, is to start testing wastewater everywhere. The CDC used stored wastewater from April to confirm that the virus had been circulating then, but it is just as possible to conduct nationwide surveillance for poliovirus now, he noted.
In fact, Racaniello said, he has long believed that this kind of surveillance should be done routinely to provide an early detection system for poliovirus.
“Ten years ago, I said to the CDC, you should really be looking in the sewage for poliovirus because of this issue where it could come in from overseas and be in our sewage,” he said. “If someone is unvaccinated, that would be a threat to them, but [the CDC] never did it.”
Davida Smyth, PhD, of Texas A&M University-San Antonio, pointed out that the National Wastewater Surveillance System (NWSS) was established to detect COVID-19 in 2020, so the infrastructure to conduct a wide search for the spread of polio is available.
The primary issue, she said, is that the collaboration that academic researchers have enjoyed with the CDC in surveillance of COVID-19 is so far absent with poliovirus.
“I imagine the CDC is testing those samples for polio, even as we speak, given the nature of what has happened,” Smyth said.
Better coordination with academia and better surveillance, she said, is crucial for finding any potential pockets of poliovirus circulating in other communities around the U.S.
In fact, she said, she is “absolutely convinced” that more polio will be found in the coming weeks.
MedPage Today contacted the CDC to ask whether there are plans to use the NWSS to look for polio around the U.S., but as of press time had not received a response.
Smyth noted that most areas in the country have high rates of polio vaccination, but she is concerned about pockets of rural America where vaccination has dipped in recent years.Most states boast polio vaccination rates over 90%, but Smyth said in some regions, the percentages may be as low as the mid-30s.
“[In] the vast majority of the United States, the vaccination rates are quite high, but the COVID pandemic has led to a decrease in vaccination rates,” Smyth told MedPage Today. “The rates are going down. They’re dipping below 90%, which is shocking, frankly.”
Smyth said the decline is largely due to a lack of opportunity or access to healthcare in some areas, but vaccine hesitancy around the COVID-19 vaccine might be affecting polio vaccinations as well.
“There’s a variety of reasons why people don’t get vaccinated,” she said. “The problem is children are very vulnerable. So if you have a population where the vaccination rates drop, those are exactly the kinds of areas where we need to do this surveillance.”
Racaniello echoed the importance of polio vaccination in adults as well. If patients don’t have a record of their shot, “just vaccinate them,” he said, “because there’s no downside to getting vaccinated again.”
Re-evaluating the Polio Endgame
The recent case of paralytic polio infection and concerns over the wider circulation of poliovirus have also altered some of the thinking around the goal of polio eradication.
In fact, William Schaffner, MD, of Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, highlighted the unique difficulty of preventing the spread of poliovirus.
“As you can imagine, we’ve gotten into polio endgame,” he told MedPage Today. “I think the notion has now been modified. Eradication isn’t going to be as neat and clean and quick as we once thought. Once we get rid of all paralytic disease, we will have to keep vaccinating for a long time, because there will still be circulating vaccine-associated viruses — some of which will mutate back.”
Schaffner compared the final push to eradicate polio with the successful eradication of smallpox. When the last case of smallpox ended, he explained, public health officials were able to end smallpox vaccination campaigns. For polio, however, he said, it will likely not be that simple, and it will be necessary “to keep vaccinating for quite a long time.”
He said that as public health officials in the U.S. and globally continue to grapple with the nuances of eradicating poliovirus, healthcare providers and their patients will have to come to terms with the simple fact that polio is a real health concern.
“[It’s] the reverse of the old saying, ‘it’s gone, but not forgotten,'” Schaffner said. “Polio is forgotten, but it’s not gone.”
Details: Department of Health and Human Services secretary Xavier Becerra made the announcement Thursday in a briefing on monkeypox.
Federal health officials can now expedite preventative measures to treat monkeypox without going through a full federal review, the Washington Post reports.
What they’re saying: “We’re prepared to take our response to the next level in addressing this virus,” Becerra said Thursday. “We urge every American to take monkeypox seriously and to take responsibility to help us tackle this virus.”
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the declaration will help “exploit the outbreak” and potentially increase access to care for those at risk.
Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, the White House national monkeypox response deputy coordinator, said “today’s actions will allow us to meet the needs of communities impacted by the virus … and aggressively work to stop this outbreak.”
State of play: Dr. Robert Califf, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said the U.S. is “at a critical inflection point” in the monkeypox outbreak, requiring “additional solutions to address the rise in infection rates.”
There are 6,600 cases of monkeypox in the U.S. as of Thursday, Becerra said.
There were less than 5,000 cases of monkeypox last week, he added.
The big picture: Biden’s decision to declare monkeypox a public emergency allows him to raise awareness of the virus and unlock more flexibility for spending on ways to treat and tackle the virus.
About 20% of Americans are worried they’ll contract monkeypox, Axios previously reported. But there are still some gaps in Americans’ knowledge of the virus and how it impacts our population.
What’s next: U.S. health officials said that 800,000 monkeypox vaccine doses will be made available for distribution. But in hotspot states for the monkeypox outbreak, there’s a drastic disconnect between the number of doses that local health officials say they need versus what they have been allotted.
The U.S. will receive another 150,000 monkeypox vaccine doses in the strategic national stockpile in September, Dawn O’Connell, administrator at HHS’ Administration for Strategic Preparedness & Response, told reporters Thursday. These were previously scheduled to arrive in October.
About 20% of Americans are afraid they’ll soon contract monkeypox, but there are still some significant holes in the public’s understanding of the virus, according to a new survey from the Annenberg Public Policy Center.
The big picture: These early stages of monkeypox outbreaks aren’t nearly as dangerous as early COVID outbreaks were, but some of the challenges for public health officials — like educating people about a virus they’re not familiar with, and mobilizing vaccination efforts — are similar.
By the numbers: One in five Americans are worried about getting monkeypox in the next three months, the Annenberg survey found.
Nearly half are unsure whether monkeypox is less contagious than COVID, although 69% correctly identified the way it usually spreads (through close contact with an infected person).
Two-thirds said they either don’t think there’s a vaccine for monkeypox, or aren’t sure. (There is a vaccine. The Biden administration said Thursday that it’s allocating another 786,000 doses, on top of the more than 340,000 it distributed this month.)
Between the lines: Memories of false assurances and mixed messaging about the coronavirus in the early days of the pandemic are factoring into public sentiment on monkeypox, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg center.
“There is some suspicion scientists don’t know what they know, so that translates to higher worry,” Jamieson told Axios.
Misinformation and conspiracy theories are also a problem.
12% of respondents in the Annenberg survey said they believe the monkeypox virus was probably or definitely created in a lab; 21% said they were not sure whether it was caused by exposure to a 5G signal.
The fact that the virus has so far spread primarily among men who have sex with men has also fueled widespread perceptions that it’s a sexually transmitted infection, which it is not.
What we’re watching: Perceptions of risk remain fluid and could shift if monkeypox finds new modes of transmission, or if it continues to affect children.
“If kids get it and there’s been no contact with individuals at risk, then you have a completely different situation than you have now,” Jamieson said.
As this summer heats up, so has the spread of the hot new version of COVID-19.
Why it matters: This subvariant of Omicron called BA.5 — the most transmissible subvariant yet — quickly overtook previous strains to become the dominant version circulating the U.S. and much of the world.
BA.5 is so transmissible — and different enough from previous versions — that even those with immunity from prior Omicron infections may not have to wait long before falling ill again.
What they’re saying: “I had plenty of friends and family who said: ‘I didn’t want to get it but I’m sort of glad I got it because it’s out of the way and I won’t get it again’,” Bob Wachter, chairman of the University of California, San Francisco Department of Medicine told Axios. “Unfortunately that doesn’t hold the way it once did.”
“Even this one bit of good news people found in the gloom, it’s like, ‘Sorry’,” Wachter said.
State of play: This week, the CDC reported BA.5 became the dominant variant in the U.S., accounting for nearly 54% of total COVID cases. Studies show extra mutations in the spike protein make the strain three or four times more resistant to antibodies, though it doesn’t appear to cause more serious illness.
Hospital admissions are starting to trend upward again, CDC data shows, though they’re still well below what was seen during the initial spread of Omicron.
It’s unclear whether that could be indicating an increase in patients in for COVID, or patients who happen to have COVID, Wachter said. “We’re up in hospitalizations around 20% but with a relatively small number of ICU patients,” Wachter said about COVID cases at UCSF.
In South Africa, the variant had no impact on hospitalizations while Portugal saw hospitalizations rise dramatically, Megan Ranney, academic dean at the Brown University School of Public Health told Axios.
“So the big unknown is what effect it’s going to have on the health care system and the numbers of folks living with long COVID,” she said.
Yes, but: “I’m certainly hearing about more reinfections and more fairly quick reinfections than at any other time in the last two and a half years,” Wachter said.
Zoom in: That is also largely the experience of the surge seen firsthand in New York City by Henry Chen, president of SOMOS Community Care, who serves as a primary care physician across three boroughs of the city.
With this particular variant, he said: “The symptoms are pretty much the same but a little bit more severe than the last wave. It’s more high fever, body ache, sore throat and coughing,” Chen said, adding his patient roster is mostly vaccinated.
But it is occurring among patients who’d gotten the virus only three or four months ago, he said.
The big picture: Another summertime wave of cases could prolong the pandemic, coming after many public health precautions were lifted and with available vaccines losing their efficacy against the ever-evolving virus.
The bottom line: The messaging isn’t to panic, but to understand the virus is likely spreading in local communities much more than individuals realize due to shrinking testing programs — and without the level of protection they might assume they have.
“If you don’t want to get sick, you still need to be taking at least some precautions,” Ranney said. “[COVID] is still very much among us.”
What role should the federal government play in addressing major healthcare issues? And does the way you vote affect your prospects for a long and healthy life? We talked about it on today’s episode of the 4sight Friday Roundup podcast.
David Johnson is CEO of 4sight Health.
Julie Vaughan Murchinson is Partner of Transformation Capital and former CEO of Health Evolution.
David Burda is News Editor and Columnist of 4sight Health.
The right to bear arms has existed since we became a nation. So, too, has the risk of violence that extensive gun ownership creates in our society.
Unfortunately, recent mass shooting incidents, fueled by hatred or mental illness, have sparked a great deal of fear and confusion among Americans.
As healthcare leaders, our concern centers on the treatment of those who are victims of senseless gun violence. And not just those who are shot, but the other victims as well.
Healthcare providers must care for all victims — the ones who are traumatized because a loved one has been hurt or lost, the ones who were at the chaotic scene of the violence, or who are haunted by the endless media stories they cannot seem to tune out. The emotional toll of this violence is incomprehensible.
Healthcare facilities attempt to provide refuge from violence and seek to provide healing and hope to all victims of violence.
Unstable individuals with guns and other weapons of harm find their way into our buildings and hallways as well. Earlier this month, a man who blamed his physician for ongoing pain after a recent back surgery shot and killed his surgeon and three other people before fatally shooting himself in a Tulsa, Okla., medical facility. Also this month, a hospital security officer was shot and killed by a prison inmate who was receiving care in a Dayton, Ohio, emergency room.
These incidents are the latest horrifying tragedies in a wave of deadly gun violence occurring across our country, including two heart-breaking mass shootings in Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, Texas. We mention these tragedies not to make a political statement, but to raise awareness of the consequences of this violence on healthcare providers and the public health.
As healthcare workers, healers, and caregivers, we work to fix what is broken and put people back together. We bring solutions. We engage with our hearts to stand together in the fear and vulnerabilities of those who need us so that we can help them through difficult challenges. We look to bring light to dark situations. We seek to be beacons of hope.
The escalation of recent shootings, suicides and other violent behaviors underscores the urgency for a national conversation on what has become a serious public health crisis. We believe health systems have a credible voice and can play a critical role beyond being places to physically and emotionally care for the victims of violence.
It’s easy to allow ourselves to become numb to the frequency of these unconscionable, violent acts. But we owe it to present and future generations not to let that happen. We recognize there are no easy answers to this national problem. After all, we are dealing with abnormal behavior — the decision to seriously harm or kill other people. That this behavior is increasing calls for something to be done to effect positive change.
People across our country and the communities we serve are hurting and vulnerable. Many people are weary from the pandemic that has impacted our hearts and our health. Violence and death, and particularly mass shootings, hit adults hard. Now consider what the prevalence and threat of school shootings have done to an entire generation of children, who are growing up with the fear of being shot and killed in a place they should feel safe.
We all can play a role. Recently, our two organizations decided to do something to reduce gun violence by sponsoring a law enforcement gun buyback program to help get guns off the street. This effort was part of the largest single-day gun buyback in New Jersey state history. It successfully removed over 2,800 guns statewide. Private organizations, companies, and individuals must think of additional creative ways beyond criticizing politicians, to bring about the change we need.
We encourage organizations and communities to come together, to pool their minds and their resources to address gun violence in society as the urgent public health crisis that it is. We must create meaningful public health campaigns around the safe storage and handling of firearms, and sensible and innovative ways to prevent gun violence in schools, healthcare settings and public places. Individuals should educate themselves on the issues surrounding gun violence so they may contribute to the effort to bring about necessary and meaningful change.
And yes, we need to accelerate efforts around our nation’s mental health crisis. We know from the data and what we are all experiencing that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated what was already a growing nationwide mental health crisis.
Violence against any person in any venue is unspeakable. Yet just because it is unspeakable does not mean we should not speak up about it. Let us put our anger, shock and heartbreak into positive change. With the same unstoppable resolution that we seek to cure cancer or slow heart disease, let us advocate, educate and take meaningful action to end gun violence and all senseless violence that is taking such a tragic toll on our nation and our wellbeing.
About Virtua Health Virtua Health is an academic health system committed to helping the people of South Jersey be well, get well, and stay well by providing the complete spectrum of advanced, accessible, and trusted healthcare services. Virtua’s 14,000 colleagues provide tertiary care, including renowned cardiology and transplant programs, complemented by a community-based care portfolio. In addition to five hospitals, two satellite emergency departments, 30 ambulatory surgery centers, and more than 300 other locations, Virtua brings health services directly into communities through Hospital at Home, physical therapy and rehabilitation, mobile screenings, and its paramedic program. Virtua has 2,850 affiliated doctors and other clinicians, and its specialties include orthopedics, advanced surgery, and maternity. Virtua is academically affiliated with Rowan University, leading research, innovation, and immersive education at the Virtua Health College of Medicine & Health Sciences of Rowan University. Virtua is also affiliated with Penn Medicine for cancer and neuroscience, and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for pediatrics. As a not-for-profit, Virtua is committed to the well-being of the community and provides innovative outreach programs that address social challenges affecting health, most notably the “Eat Well” food access initiative, which includes the unparalleled Eat Well Mobile Grocery Store. A Magnet-recognized health system ranked by U.S. News and World Report, Virtua has received many awards for quality, safety, and its outstanding work environment. For more information, visit Virtua.org. To help Virtua make a difference, visit GiveToVirtua.org.
About Cooper University Health Care Cooper University Health Care is a leading academic health system with more 8,500 employees and more than 800 employed physicians. Cooper University Hospital is the only Level 1 Trauma Center in South Jersey and the busiest in the region. Annually, nearly two million patients are served at Cooper’s 635-bed flagship hospital, outpatient surgery center, three urgent care centers, and more than 105 ambulatory offices throughout the community. The Cooper Health Sciences campus is home to Cooper University Hospital, MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper, Children’s Regional Hospital at Cooper, and Cooper Medical School of Rowan University. Visit CooperHealth.org to learn more.
COVID-19 cases have risen in the U.S. to around 100,000 per day, and the real number could be as much as five times that, given many go unreported.
But the situation is far different from the early months of the pandemic. There are now vaccines and booster shots, and new treatments that dramatically cut the risk of the virus. So how much do cases alone still matter?
That question has prompted debate among experts, even as much of America goes on with their lives, despite the recent surge in cases.
How much concern high case numbers alone should prompt is “the trillion-dollar question,” said Bob Wachter, chair of the department of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco.
In the early days of the pandemic, dying of COVID-19 was a concern for him, but now, in an era of vaccines and treatments, “it doesn’t even cross my mind anymore,” he said.
But he noted there are other risks, including long COVID-19: symptoms like fatigue or difficulty concentrating that can linger for months.
“I think long COVID is pretty scary,” he said.
While cases have risen to around 100,000 reported per day, deaths have stayed flat, a testament to the power of vaccines and booster shots in preventing severe illness, as well as the Pfizer treatment pills Paxlovid, which cut the risk of hospitalization or death by around 90 percent.
Hospitalizations have risen, but only modestly, to around 27,000, one of the lowest points of the pandemic, according to a New York Times tracker.
Cases have now been “partially decoupled” from causing hospitalizations and deaths, said Preeti Malani, an infectious disease expert at the University of Michigan, such that hospitals are no longer overwhelmed.
“[Cases are] not without any consequence, but in terms of pressure on the health system, so far we’re not seeing that, which is really what drove all of this,” she said.
The behavior of much of America reflects a lessened concern about the risk of being infected. Restaurants and bars are packed. Many people do not wear masks even on airplanes or on the subway.
An Axios-Ipsos poll in May found just 36 percent of Americans said there was significant risk in returning to their “normal pre-coronavirus life.”
In the Biden administration, health officials are still advising people to wear masks in areas the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies as at “high” risk. But President Biden himself is talking about the virus far less than he did at the start of his administration, and is not making sustained calls for people to wear masks.
White House COVID-19 response coordinator Ashish Jha touted progress in defanging cases on Thursday.
“We see cases rising, nearly 100,000 cases a day, and yet we’re still seeing death numbers that are substantially, about 90 percent lower, than where they were when the president first took office,” he told reporters.
Some experts are pushing back on the deemphasis of case numbers, saying they still matter.
“The bunk that cases are not important is preposterous,” Eric Topol, professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research, wrote last month. “They are infections that beget more cases, they beget Long Covid, they beget sickness, hospitalizations and deaths. They are also the underpinning of new variants.”
Even if one does not get severely ill oneself, more cases mean more chances for the virus to spread on to someone who is more vulnerable, like the elderly or immunocompromised.
While deaths are way down from their peak earlier in the pandemic, there are still around 300 people dying from the virus every day, a number that would have proved shocking in a pre-COVID-19 world.
Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University, recommended that people take a rapid test before visiting a more vulnerable person, as a safeguard that avoids more burdensome restrictions.
“Cases alone do not tell the whole story,” she said, adding, “As a policy matter we need to stop using the same comparisons we were in 2020 and 2021.”
There is still much that is unknown about long COVID-19, one of the biggest risks remaining for healthy, younger people who are vaccinated.
A recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimated 10 percent to 30 percent of COVID-19 infections result in long COVID-19 symptoms, but there is no precise estimate.
Experts also urge people who have not gotten their booster shots, or not been vaccinated at all, to do so, given that many are more vulnerable to the virus if they are not up-to-date on their shots.
A new variant also always holds the risk of upending the current risk-benefit calculations. The virus has continued to evolve to spread more easily, and a future mutation could cause more severe illness or more greatly evade vaccines.
Pfizer and Moderna are working on updated vaccines to better target the omicron variant, but the Biden administration warns it will not have enough money to purchase those new vaccines for all Americans this fall unless Congress provides more funding. The funding request has been stalled for months, though, itself a sign of the reduced sense of urgency around the virus fight.
At least for now, though, while many people are getting COVID-19, fewer are getting extremely sick.
“It’s a very risky time if you don’t want to get COVID [at all],” Wachter said. “But a relatively less risky time if your goal is to not get severe COVID or die.”
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.
“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.
Only 10 days after a racially motivated mass shooting that killed 10 in a Buffalo, NY grocery store, 19 children and two teachers were murdered on Tuesday at an elementary school in Uvalde, TX. The Uvalde shooting was the 27th school shooting, and one of over 212 mass shootings, that have occurred this year alone.
Firearms recently overtook car accidents as the leading cause of childhood deaths in the US, and more than 45,000 Americans die from gun violence each year.
The Gist: Gun violence is, and has long been, a serious public health crisis in this country. It is both important to remember, yet difficult for some to accept, that many mass shootings are preventable.
Health systems, as stewards of health in their communities, can play a central role in preventing gun violence at its source, both by bolstering mental health services and advocating for the needed legislative actions—supported by a strong majority of American voters—to stem this public health crisis.
As Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling said this week, “Our job is to save lives and prevent people from illness and death. Gun violence is not an issue on the outside—it’s a central public health issue for us. Every single hospital leader in the United States should be standing up and screaming about what an abomination this is. If you were hesitant about getting involved the day before…May 24 should have changed your perspective. It’s time.”