The 1918 flu is even more relevant in 2022 thanks to omicron

Over the past two years, historians and analysts have compared the coronavirus to the 1918 flu pandemic. Many of the mitigation practices used to combat the spread of the coronavirus, especially before the development of the vaccines, have been the same as those used in 1918 and 1919 — masks and hygiene, social distancing, ventilation, limits on gatherings (particularly indoors), quarantines, mandates, closure policies and more.

Yet, it may be that only now, in the winter of 2022, when Americans are exhausted with these mitigation methods, that a comparison to the 1918 pandemic is most apt.

The highly contagious omicron variant has rendered vaccines much less effective at preventing infections, thus producing skyrocketing caseloads. And that creates a direct parallel with the fall of 1918, which provides lessons for making January as painless as possible.

In February and March 1918, an infectious flu emerged. It spread from Kansas, through World War I troop and material transports, filling military post hospitals and traveling across the Atlantic and around the world within six months. Cramped quarters and wartime transport and industry generated optimal conditions for the flu to spread, and so, too, did the worldwide nature of commerce and connection. But there was a silver lining: Mortality rates were very low.

In part because of press censorship of anything that might undermine the war effort, many dismissed the flu as a “three-day fever,” perhaps merely a heavy cold, or simply another case of the grippe (an old-fashioned word for the flu).

Downplaying the flu led to high infection rates, which increased the odds of mutations. And in the summer of 1918, a more infectious variant emerged. In August and September, U.S. and British intelligence officers observed outbreaks in Switzerland and northern Europe, writing home with warnings that went largely unheeded.

Unsurprisingly then, this seemingly more infectious, much more deadly variant of H1N1 traveled west across the Atlantic, producing the worst period of the pandemic in October 1918. Nearly 200,000 Americans died that month. After a superspreading Liberty Loan parade at the end of September, Philadelphia became an epicenter of the outbreak. At its peak, nearly 700 Philadelphians died per day.

Once spread had begun, mitigation methods such as closures, distancing, mask-wearing and isolating those infected couldn’t stop it, but they did save many lives and limited suffering by slowing infections and spread. The places that fared best implemented proactive restrictions early; they kept them in place until infections and hospitalizations were way down, then opened up gradually, with preparations to reimpose measures if spread returned or rates elevated, often ignoring the pleas of special interests lobbying hard for a complete reopening.

In places in the United States where officials gave in to public fatigue and lobbying to remove mitigation methods, winter surges struck. Although down from October’s highs, these surges were still usually far worse than those in the cities and regions that held steady.

In Denver, in late November 1918, an “amusement” lobby — businesses and leaders invested in keeping theaters, movie houses, pool halls and other public venues open — successfully pressured the mayor and public health officials to rescind and then revise a closure order. This, in turn, generated what the Rocky Mountain News called “almost indescribable confusion,” followed by widespread public defiance of mask and other public health prescriptions.

In San Francisco, where resistance was generally less successful than in Denver, there was significant buy-in for a second round of masking and public health mandates in early 1919 during a new surge. But opposition created an issue. An Anti-Mask League formed, and public defiance became more pronounced. Eventually anti-maskers and an improving epidemic situation combined to end the “masked” city’s second round of mask and public health mandates.

The takeaway: Fatigue and removing mitigation methods made things worse. Public officials needed to safeguard the public good, even if that meant unpopular moves.

The flu burned through vulnerable populations, but by late winter and early spring 1919, deaths and infections dropped rapidly, shifting toward an endemic moment — the flu would remain present, but less deadly and dangerous.

Overall, nearly 675,000 Americans died during the 1918-19 flu pandemic, the majority during the second wave in the autumn of 1918. That was 1 in roughly 152 Americans (with a case fatality rate of about 2.5 percent). Worldwide estimates differ, but on the order of 50 million probably died in the flu pandemic.

In 2022, we have far greater biomedical and technological capacity enabling us to sequence mutations, understand the physics of aerosolization and develop vaccines at a rapid pace. We also have a far greater public health infrastructure than existed in 1918 and 1919. Even so, it remains incredibly hard to stop infectious diseases, particularly those transmitted by air. This is complicated further because many of those infected with the coronavirus are asymptomatic. And our world is even more interconnected than in 1918.

That is why, given the contagiousness of omicron, the lessons of the past are even more important today than they were a year ago. The new surge threatens to overwhelm our public health infrastructure, which is struggling after almost two years of fighting the pandemic. Hospitals are experiencing staff shortages (like in fall 1918). Testing remains problematic.

And ominously, as in the fall of 1918, Americans fatigued by restrictions and a seemingly endless pandemic are increasingly balking at following the guidance of public health professionals or questioning why their edicts have changed from earlier in the pandemic. They are taking actions that, at the very least, put more vulnerable people and the system as a whole at risk — often egged on by politicians and media figures downplaying the severity of the moment.

Public health officials also may be repeating the mistakes of the past. Conjuring echoes of Denver in late 1918, under pressure to prioritize keeping society open rather than focusing on limiting spread, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its isolation recommendations in late December. The new guidelines halved isolation time and do not require a negative test to reenter work or social gatherings.

Thankfully, we have an enormous advantage over 1918 that offers hope. Whereas efforts to develop a flu vaccine a century ago failed, the coronavirus vaccines developed in 2020 largely prevent severe illness or death from omicron, and the companies and researchers that produced them expect a booster shot tailored to omicron sometime in the winter or spring. So, too, we have antivirals and new treatments that are just becoming available, though in insufficient quantities for now.

Those lifesaving advantages, however, can only help as much as Americans embrace them. Only by getting vaccinated, including with booster shots, can Americans prevent the health-care system from being overwhelmed. But the vaccination rate in the country remains a relatively paltry 62 percent, and only a scant 1 in 5 have received a booster shot. And as in 1918, some of the choice rests with public officials. Though restrictions may not be popular, officials can reimpose them — offering public support where necessary to those for whom compliance would create hardship — and incentivize and mandate vaccines, taking advantage of our greater medical technology.

As the flu waned in 1919, one Portland, Ore., health official reflected that “the biggest thing we have had to fight in the influenza epidemic has been apathy, or perhaps the careless selfishness of the public.”

The same remains true today.

Vaccines, new treatments and century-old mitigation strategies such as masks, distancing and limits on gatherings give us a pathway to prevent the first six weeks of 2022 from being like the fall of 1918. And encouraging news about the severity of omicron provides real optimism that an endemic future — in which the coronavirus remains but poses far less of a threat — is near. The question is whether we get there with a maximum of pain or a minimum. The choice is ours.

America Is Not Ready for Omicron

America was not prepared for COVID-19 when it arrived. It was not prepared for last winter’s surge. It was not prepared for Delta’s arrival in the summer or its current winter assault. More than 1,000 Americans are still dying of COVID every day, and more have died this year than last. Hospitalizations are rising in 42 states. The University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, which entered the pandemic as arguably the best-prepared hospital in the country, recently went from 70 COVID patients to 110 in four days, leaving its staff “grasping for resolve,” the virologist John Lowe told me. And now comes Omicron.

Will the new and rapidly spreading variant overwhelm the U.S. health-care system? The question is moot because the system is already overwhelmed, in a way that is affecting all patients, COVID or otherwise. “The level of care that we’ve come to expect in our hospitals no longer exists,” Lowe said.

The real unknown is what an Omicron cross will do when it follows a Delta hook. Given what scientists have learned in the three weeks since Omicron’s discovery, “some of the absolute worst-case scenarios that were possible when we saw its genome are off the table, but so are some of the most hopeful scenarios,” Dylan Morris, an evolutionary biologist at UCLA, told me. In any case, America is not prepared for Omicron. The variant’s threat is far greater at the societal level than at the personal one, and policy makers have already cut themselves off from the tools needed to protect the populations they serve. Like the variants that preceded it, Omicron requires individuals to think and act for the collective good—which is to say, it poses a heightened version of the same challenge that the U.S. has failed for two straight years, in bipartisan fashion.

The coronavirus is a microscopic ball studded with specially shaped spikes that it uses to recognize and infect our cells. Antibodies can thwart such infections by glomming onto the spikes, like gum messing up a key. But Omicron has a crucial advantage: 30-plus mutations that change the shape of its spike and disable many antibodies that would have stuck to other variants. One early study suggests that antibodies in vaccinated people are about 40 times worse at neutralizing Omicron than the original virus, and the experts I talked with expect that, as more data arrive, that number will stay in the same range. The implications of that decline are still uncertain, but three simple principles should likely hold.

First, the bad news: In terms of catching the virus, everyone should assume that they are less protected than they were two months ago. As a crude shorthand, assume that Omicron negates one previous immunizing event—either an infection or a vaccine dose. Someone who considered themselves fully vaccinated in September would be just partially vaccinated now (and the official definition may change imminently). But someone who’s been boosted has the same ballpark level of protection against Omicron infection as a vaccinated-but-unboosted person did against Delta. The extra dose not only raises a recipient’s level of antibodies but also broadens their range, giving them better odds of recognizing the shape of even Omicron’s altered spike. In a small British study, a booster effectively doubled the level of protection that two Pfizer doses provided against Omicron infection.

Second, some worse news: Boosting isn’t a foolproof shield against Omicron. In South Africa, the variant managed to infect a cluster of seven people who were all boosted. And according to a CDC report, boosted Americans made up a third of the first known Omicron cases in the U.S. “People who thought that they wouldn’t have to worry about infection this winter if they had their booster do still have to worry about infection with Omicron,” Trevor Bedford, a virologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, told me. “I’ve been going to restaurants and movies, and now with Omicron, that will change.”

Third, some better news: Even if Omicron has an easier time infecting vaccinated individuals, it should still have more trouble causing severe disease. The vaccines were always intended to disconnect infection from dangerous illness, turning a life-threatening event into something closer to a cold. Whether they’ll fulfill that promise for Omicron is a major uncertainty, but we can reasonably expect that they will. The variant might sneak past the initial antibody blockade, but slower-acting branches of the immune system (such as T cells) should eventually mobilize to clear it before it wreaks too much havoc.

To see how these principles play out in practice, Dylan Morris suggests watching highly boosted places, such as Israel, and countries where severe epidemics and successful vaccination campaigns have given people layers of immunity, such as Brazil and Chile. In the meantime, it’s reasonable to treat Omicron as a setback but not a catastrophe for most vaccinated people. It will evade some of our hard-won immune defenses, without obliterating them entirely. “It was better than I expected, given the mutational profile,” Alex Sigal of the Africa Health Research Institute, who led the South African antibody study, told me. “It’s not going to be a common cold, but neither do I think it will be a tremendous monster.”

That’s for individuals, though. At a societal level, the outlook is bleaker.

Omicron’s main threat is its shocking speed, as my colleague Sarah Zhang has reported. In South Africa, every infected person has been passing the virus on to 3–3.5 other people—at least twice the pace at which Delta spread in the summer. Similarly, British data suggest that Omicron is twice as good at spreading within households as Delta. That might be because the new variant is inherently more transmissible than its predecessors, or because it is specifically better at moving through vaccinated populations. Either way, it has already overtaken Delta as the dominant variant in South Africa. Soon, it will likely do the same in Scotland and Denmark. Even the U.S., which has much poorer genomic surveillance than those other countries, has detected Omicron in 35 states. “I think that a large Omicron wave is baked in,” Bedford told me. “That’s going to happen.”

More positively, Omicron cases have thus far been relatively mild. This pattern has fueled the widespread claim that the variant might be less severe, or even that its rapid spread could be a welcome development. “People are saying ‘Let it rip’ and ‘It’ll help us build more immunity,’ that this is the exit wave and everything’s going to be fine and rosy after,” Richard Lessells, an infectious-disease physician at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, in South Africa, told me. “I have no confidence in that.”

To begin with, as he and others told me, that argument overlooks a key dynamic: Omicron might not actually be intrinsically milder. In South Africa and the United Kingdom, it has mostly infected younger people, whose bouts of COVID-19 tend to be less severe. And in places with lots of prior immunity, it might have caused few hospitalizations or deaths simply because it has mostly infected hosts with some protection, as Natalie Dean, a biostatistician at Emory University, explained in a Twitter thread. That pattern could change once it reaches more vulnerable communities. (The widespread notion that viruses naturally evolve to become less virulent is mistaken, as the virologist Andrew Pekosz of Johns Hopkins University clarified in The New York Times.) Also, deaths and hospitalizations are not the only fates that matter. Supposedly “mild” bouts of COVID-19 have led to cases of long COVID, in which people struggle with debilitating symptoms for months (or even years), while struggling to get care or disability benefits.

And even if Omicron is milder, greater transmissibility will likely trump that reduced virulence. Omicron is spreading so quickly that a small proportion of severe cases could still flood hospitals. To avert that scenario, the variant would need to be substantially milder than Delta—especially because hospitals are already at a breaking point. Two years of trauma have pushed droves of health-care workers, including many of the most experienced and committed, to quit their job. The remaining staff is ever more exhausted and demoralized, and “exceptionally high numbers” can’t work because they got breakthrough Delta infections and had to be separated from vulnerable patients, John Lowe told me. This pattern will only worsen as Omicron spreads, if the large clusters among South African health-care workers are any indication. “In the West, we’ve painted ourselves into a corner because most countries have huge Delta waves and most of them are stretched to the limit of their health-care systems,” Emma Hodcroft, an epidemiologist at the University of Bern, in Switzerland, told me. “What happens if those waves get even bigger with Omicron?”

The Omicron wave won’t completely topple America’s wall of immunity but will seep into its many cracks and weaknesses. It will find the 39 percent of Americans who are still not fully vaccinated (including 28 percent of adults and 13 percent of over-65s). It will find other biologically vulnerable people, including elderly and immunocompromised individuals whose immune systems weren’t sufficiently girded by the vaccines. It will find the socially vulnerable people who face repeated exposures, either because their “essential” jobs leave them with no choice or because they live in epidemic-prone settings, such as prisons and nursing homes. Omicron is poised to speedily recap all the inequities that the U.S. has experienced in the pandemic thus far.

Here, then, is the problem: People who are unlikely to be hospitalized by Omicron might still feel reasonably protected, but they can spread the virus to those who are more vulnerable, quickly enough to seriously batter an already collapsing health-care system that will then struggle to care for anyone—vaccinated, boosted, or otherwise. The collective threat is substantially greater than the individual one. And the U.S. is ill-poised to meet it.

America’s policy choices have left it with few tangible options for averting an Omicron wave. Boosters can still offer decent protection against infection, but just 17 percent of Americans have had those shots. Many are now struggling to make appointments, and people from rural, low-income, and minority communities will likely experience the greatest delays, “mirroring the inequities we saw with the first two shots,” Arrianna Marie Planey, a medical geographer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told me. With a little time, the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna could be updated, but “my suspicion is that once we have an Omicron-specific booster, the wave will be past,” Trevor Bedford, the virologist, said.

Two antiviral drugs now exist that could effectively keep people out of the hospital, but neither has been authorized and both are expensive. Both must also be administered within five days of the first symptoms, which means that people need to realize they’re sick and swiftly confirm as much with a test. But instead of distributing rapid tests en masse, the Biden administration opted to merely make them reimbursable through health insurance. “That doesn’t address the need where it is greatest,” Planey told me. Low-wage workers, who face high risk of infection, “are the least able to afford tests up front and the least likely to have insurance,” she said. And testing, rapid or otherwise, is about to get harder, as Omicron’s global spread strains both the supply of reagents and the capacity of laboratories.

Omicron may also be especially difficult to catch before it spreads to others, because its incubation period—the window between infection and symptoms—seems to be very short. At an Oslo Christmas party, almost three-quarters of attendees were infected even though all reported a negative test result one to three days before. That will make Omicron “harder to contain,” Lowe told me. “It’s really going to put a lot of pressure on the prevention measures that are still in place—or rather, the complete lack of prevention that’s still in place.”

The various measures that controlled the spread of other variants—masks, better ventilation, contact tracing, quarantine, and restrictions on gatherings—should all theoretically work for Omicron too. But the U.S. has either failed to invest in these tools or has actively made it harder to use them. Republican legislators in at least 26 states have passed laws that curtail the very possibility of quarantines and mask mandates. In September, Alexandra Phelan of Georgetown University told me that when the next variant comes, such measures could create “the worst of all worlds” by “removing emergency actions, without the preventive care that would allow people to protect their own health.” Omicron will test her prediction in the coming weeks.

The longer-term future is uncertain. After Delta’s emergence, it became clear that the coronavirus was too transmissible to fully eradicate. Omicron could potentially shunt us more quickly toward a different endgameendemicitythe point when humanity has gained enough immunity to hold the virus in a tenuous stalemate—albeit at significant cost. But more complicated futures are also plausible. For example, if Omicron and Delta are so different that each can escape the immunity that the other induces, the two variants could co-circulate. (That’s what happened with the viruses behind polio and influenza B.)

Omicron also reminds us that more variants can still arise—and stranger ones than we might expect. Most scientists I talked with figured the next one to emerge would be a descendant of Delta, featuring a few more mutational bells and whistles. Omicron, however, is “dramatically different,” Shane Crotty, from the La Jolla Institute for Immunology, told me. “It showed a lot more evolutionary potential than I or others had hoped for.” It evolved not from Delta but from older lineages of SARS-CoV-2, and seems to have acquired its smorgasbord of mutations in some hidden setting: perhaps a part of the world that does very little sequencing, or an animal species that was infected by humans and then transmitted the virus back to us, or the body of an immunocompromised patient who was chronically infected with the virus. All of these options are possible, but the people I spoke with felt that the third—the chronically ill patient—was most likely. And if that’s the case, with millions of immunocompromised people in the U.S. alone, many of whom feel overlooked in the vaccine era, will more weird variants keep arising? Omicron “doesn’t look like the end of it,” Crotty told me. One cause for concern: For all the mutations in Omicron’s spike, it actually has fewer mutations in the rest of its proteins than Delta did. The virus might still have many new forms to take.

Vaccinating the world can curtail those possibilities, and is now an even greater matter of moral urgency, given Omicron’s speed. And yet, people in rich countries are getting their booster six times faster than those in low-income countries are getting their first shot. Unless the former seriously commits to vaccinating the world—not just donating doses, but allowing other countries to manufacture and disseminate their own supplies—“it’s going to be a very expensive wild-goose chase until the next variant,” Planey said.

Vaccines can’t be the only strategy, either. The rest of the pandemic playbook remains unchanged and necessary: paid sick leave and other policies that protect essential workers, better masks, improved ventilation, rapid tests, places where sick people can easily isolate, social distancing, a stronger public-health system, and ways of retaining the frayed health-care workforce. The U.S. has consistently dropped the ball on many of these, betting that vaccines alone could get us out of the pandemic. Rather than trying to beat the coronavirus one booster at a time, the country needs to do what it has always needed to do—build systems and enact policies that protect the health of entire communities, especially the most vulnerable ones

Individualism couldn’t beat Delta, it won’t beat Omicron, and it won’t beat the rest of the Greek alphabet to come.

Self-interest is self-defeating, and as long as its hosts ignore that lesson, the virus will keep teaching it.

3 Ascension Texas hospitals to pay $20.9M for alleged kickbacks

Kickback Definition

Three Ascension hospitals in Texas agreed to pay $20.9 million for allegedly paying multiple physician groups above fair market value for services, according to a recent news release from the HHS’ Office of Inspector General.

The three Texas hospitals are Ascension’s Dell Seton Medical Center in Austin, Ascension Seton Medical Center Austin and Ascension Seton Williamson in Roundrock. Ascension self-disclosed the conduct to the inspector general.

The hospitals allegedly violated the Civil Monetary Penalties Law, including provisions related to physician self-referrals and kickbacks in seven instances, according to the April 30 news release.

Some of the allegations the report outlined include Dell Seton paying an Austin physician practice above fair market value for on-call coverage; Ascension Seton Austin paying an Austin practice above fair market value for transplant on-call coverage and administrative services; and Ascension Seton Williamson paying a practice above fair market value to lease the practice’s employed registered nurses and surgical technologists who assisted in surgeries at the hospital. 

The release did not disclose the physician groups allegedly involved.

Access the full release here