The 'so what wave': Why the US is so blasé about BA.2

CDC estimates show the omicron subvariant BA.2 now makes up 72 percent of U.S. cases, but the nation's mood surrounding another potential wave is much different than previous COVID-19 surges. 

In other countries where BA.2 has a foothold, COVID-19 cases started to rise once the subvariant accounted for 50 percent to 60 percent of total cases, Sam Scarpino, PhD, managing director of pathogen surveillance at the Rockefeller Foundation, told The Atlantic. Experts say it's still unclear whether the U.S. will see a similar trend but warn the country is ill prepared to adequately manage such a rise should it occur.

Nationwide, COVID-19 cases have fallen 6 percent in the past 14 days, according to data tracked by The New York Times. However, cases were increasing in 21 states and Washington, D.C., as of April 6. Over the next two weeks, daily COVID-19 cases are projected to increase 64.5 percent, modeling from Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Clinic shows.

But as author Katherine Wu puts it in The Atlantic, "The next wave may be less a BA.2 wave, and more a 'So what?' wave — one many Americans care little to see, because, after two years of crisis, they care so little to respond."

The blasé attitude toward a potential wave is reflected in the nation's relaxed preparedness this time around: 

1. Health departments are scaling back public health efforts. Many state and local health departments are closing free testing and mass vaccination sites amid a national lull in COVID-19 activity and low demand for the services. For example, San Antonio closed its mass vaccination site March 25 after averaging fewer than 50 vaccinations a day. At its peak, the site was vaccinating about 3,500 people daily. Some public health officials have warned that limiting public health efforts now could make it more difficult to quickly ramp up vaccinations and testing again if another surge driven by the BA.2 subvariant occurs. Even now, less than half of Americans eligible for a booster dose have received one, according to the CDC.

2. Data reporting is spottier. Reporting on COVID-19 cases is becoming increasingly spotty. A growing number of states have cut back on daily reports that provide information on new cases, hospitalizations and deaths. While some experts have said metrics like hospitalizations and vaccination numbers are more valuable than case counts alone at this point in the pandemic, others say cutting back on COVID-19 data reporting will hinder response times if another nationwide surge does occur. The closure of community test sites and the rise in at-home testing are also factors in the nation's dwindling insight into transmission trends. 

"I keep thinking back to this idea of 'If we don't measure it, it won't happen,'" said Shweta Bansal, PhD, infectious disease modeler at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. "It's happening, and we just don't see it yet," she told The Atlantic. 

3. The stakes feel smaller after this winter's omicron surge. Millions of Americans were infected by BA.1, the original omicron strain. In January, it pushed the daily average for new cases to a pandemic record of more than 800,000, data from The New York Times shows. The strain, associated with less severe illness than delta, left many infected people with few or no symptoms. With the memory of this surge still fresh, society may have misconstrued assumptions that subsequent surges will be mild.

On the heels of the omicron surge, the CDC also loosened indoor mask guidelines to give Americans a break from COVID-19 precautions so they'd be ready to resume them if COVID-19 metrics started going in the wrong direction again. However, Americans may be less willing to return to masking now that they've had a taste for normal life. Poor COVID-19 data reporting may also cloud the CDC's understanding of when masks will be needed again, according to The Atlantic.


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