Category Archives: Coronavirus variant

You, me and Omicron, oh my!

By Roger Straw, November 28, 2021

You think YOU’RE tired of this…  I’ve about had it!

Roger Straw, The Benicia Independent

I’m a news junkie.  Every morning since I don’t know when, I’ve gotten up in the morning and sat in front of the newspaper and tv news over 3 cups of coffee.

With cream – well, it can’t be all work and no play.

But waking this morning, I almost couldn’t bring myself to do it.  I didn’t want to see the daily news shows.  I’d heard the early reports yesterday about the outbreak of the new COVID variant – Omicron – in Southern Africa and its early spread to Europe.  And I actually dreaded learning more.

But, no!  I’m the one PUSHING COVID news here in Benicia / Solano County, right?  Almost daily, since April, 2020, I’ve monitored the local and regional COVID news and let you know.  I’ve spent over a year and a half immersed in the daily toll: numbers with faces behind each one, totals that belie pain and loss and grief, words and spreadsheets and blog postings that failed, really, at every turn, to tell the heart-rending stories of friends and families.

I was actually tired of it long ago.  And now this.

You know that I’m not among those saying we are almost out of the danger zone.  I’ve never let up on the alarm bells.  But when Omicron surfaced, it seemed too much even for me.  Please, not again, not more, not more….

How many of you out there have long ago turned off the tv reports on COVID, or at least diverted your attention?  We keep on with the masking and social distancing, but increasingly, we need to plug our ears.  I know my readership is down on the BenIndy.  People are really, really tired of hearing about COVID.

Brian Stelter, of CNN’s Reliable Sources outlines the difficulty we all are facing – early warnings about Omicron with no certainty as to what is coming.  I’ll leave it to him to sum up what we know and don’t know, and to help clarify our anxiety-ridden responses to Omicron.  This is really good, and well-written – read on…

 

Covid news “purgatory”

Friday’s satirical headline by The Onion said it best: “Nation Nearly Strings Together 3 Good Days In Row.”

The blessing of Thanksgiving on Thursday was followed by a curse on Friday: Urgent news about the new Covid variant named Omicron. “We know almost nothing about the Omicron variant,” as this headline on The Atlantic‘s website helpfully states. But the abrupt reactions to the news — stock selloffs, travel restrictions, endless Twitter threads — made Omicron the top story of the weekend across all sorts of news websites and networks.

Now the world is in a sort of information holding pattern, as reflected by this banner on CNN Sunday afternoon: “QUESTIONS & CONCERNS BUT STILL SPARSE DATA ON NEW COVID VARIANT.” Zeynep Tufekci put it this way: “South Africa has gifted us an early warning with Omicron. But earlier the warning, the less we know.”

Author and podcaster Derek Thompson, one of the smartest voices out there about the media and society, said Sunday that “the gap between information and meaning at this moment in the Omicron story is immense. It’s deeply impressive but also discombobulating to have access to so much genetic and virological data with the big-picture takeaway being ‘we don’t really know what any of this means yet.'” He added“there’s something uncanny about these sort of news purgatories where information is abundant but meaning is scarce, and the only reasonable thing is to *not* draw conclusions from an abundance of factoids.”

True — but that’s hard to do when the information sounds alarming and is repeated ad nauseam all across the media…

A two-week wait

“Wait two weeks” seems to be the consensus. Dr. Paul Burton, the chief medical officer for Moderna, told CNN’s Paula Reid on Sunday, “We have to go through a couple of weeks here of uncertainty.” The White House’s readout of President Biden’s meeting with Dr. Anthony Fauci and members of his Covid Response Team made the same point: “Dr. Fauci informed the President that while it will take approximately two more weeks to have more definitive information on the transmissibility, severity, and other characteristics of the variant, he continues to believe that existing vaccines are likely to provide a degree of protection against severe cases of Covid.” So in the meantime, get boosted if you haven’t already. “There’s no reason to panic, but it’s a great reason to get boosted,” NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins told Dana Bash on “State of the Union…”

Biden admin is in “a messaging bind”

WaPo’s Dan Diamond observed that “in interviews, officials keep admitting that Omicron (and the current lack of data) presents a messaging bind. No one wants to sound alarm unnecessarily — but failing to warn about potential risks is a bigger sin in public health, especially if actions now could protect people.”

Politico’s Alex Thompson said on CNN’s “Inside Politics” that he spoke with a WH official late Saturday “and the phrase they kept using over and over is ‘We’re not going to get caught flat-footed.’” That’s why Fauci and Collins blanketed the Sunday AM shows, Thompson said. But what’s left unsaid, he added, is that “they did get caught flat-footed by Delta” last summer. But the risk now, Thompson added on Twitter, is “that they are overcorrecting…”


Let’s inform, not speculate

Oliver Darcy writes: “When there are information vacuums — coupled with the need to fill cable news air time, get eyeballs reading news stories, and satisfy the SEO gods — it can be tempting to delve into the arena of speculation. That’s been quite clear over the past few days. Actual data has been more scarce than speculation on what the variant might mean for the world moving forward. But journalists, particularly newsroom leaders who set the tone of coverage, should resist the temptation to hype conjecture. We still have very little knowledge on what the new variant could mean for the world. Unnerving the public by playing out the worst-case scenarios in stories and amplifying the worst fears of the scientific community in chyrons and headlines isn’t the way to go. Audiences deserve better.”

>> Dr. Jonathan Reiner‘s reaction when I asked him if Omicron should be the lead story right now: No, “because it’s a story that is based entirely on speculation. We will have data from really hard-working scientists over the next few weeks that will help inform how we can put this new variant into context…”

FOR THE RECORD, PART ONE

 — Biden will deliver an update on the new variant sometime Monday…

— Over the weekend I noticed a corollary to the “choose your own news” phenomenon: “Choose your own Twitter thread.” Some threads have ominous warnings about Omicron while others are much more optimistic…

— Johns Hopkins epidemiologist David Dowdy criticizing his colleagues: “In this situation – where data are early & societal implications are large – scientists have a duty not to oversell. And we are doing exactly that. Shame on us…” (Twitter)

— Dr. Peter Hotez, a regular doc across cable news, said “my biggest concern” is not Omicron, it’s that “we’re about to undergo another big winter Delta wave…” (MSNBC)

— “I have come to the conclusion that people love to panic,” science journalist Erin Biba remarked. She called it “completely and utterly exhausting that doomsday headlines and uninformed reporters create mass hysteria before we even have any details or information. Always wait! Before you panic, wait! Wait until you have more info…” (Twitter)

— Juliette Kayyem wrote this on Wednesday, pre-Omicron, and reaffirmed it on Sunday: “Even though the threat still exists,” the US “needs to be nudged into the recovery phase — and only elected leaders can provide that nudge…” (The Atlantic)

“Two years into this horror show…”

NYT reporter Stephanie Nolen left South Africa on Thursday after spending time with scientists there – and wound up reporting live from an airplane quarantined on the tarmac in Amsterdam. She wrote that “Europe apparently panicked” about the variant news “while I was somewhere over the Sahara; by the time we landed, we were told we would not be permitted off the plane.” She eventually tested negative and was allowed to continue onward to Canada.

On Sunday afternoon, Nolen finished her multi-day Twitter thread by saying she is “opting to self-quarantine, in an AirBnB, and keep testing, after the airport exposure I had courtesy of the Dutch authorities.” She expressed frustration with Dutch and British officials, plus the people on her flight who failed to wear masks, “even when I pleaded and we KNEW people were already testing positive.” She wrote, “Two years into this horror show, we’ve just got to be smarter and better at managing. I don’t know how you make people care about each other.”

BIG PICTURE…

“Covid is everything”

On Sunday’s “Reliable,” I talked with Chris Arnade, the banker turned photographer who now walks the streets of American towns and writes about what he hears and learns. He remarked about Covid being the primary drag on voters’ perceptions of Biden: “Covid is everything.” Those three words apply to more than Biden’s approval rating, obviously. Covid continues to be the throughline of every story, every struggle.

And folks who feel forgotten, who feel exploited by “elites,” feel like Covid-era policies benefited the Zoom class and punished them, Arnade said. There’s a huge cynicism towards institutions,” he added, “and Covid has made that cynicism worse.” We’re already seeing some incredibly cynical reactions to the news about Omicron…

KTVU News coverage – Benicia City Council to Consider Renewing Mask Mandate on Tues. Aug. 24

Benicia considering indoor mask mandate

KTVU News, By Greg Liggins, August 22, 2021

BENICIA, Calif. – A city in Solano County will soon decide whether to bring back its indoor mask mandate.

Solano County has been an outlier throughout much of the pandemic and recently decided not to join other Bay Area counties in requiring masks indoors for everyone.

Without such county guidance, cities are forced to make up their own rules, and that’s what the City Council of Benicia will be considering next week.

The council may bring back the indoor mask mandate that ended in June.

And if it does so, it will be taking action the County Health Director is against.

Lots of people are currently donning masks voluntarily in Benicia.

Masks are not currently required, even indoors, because the county health director has gone on the record saying the data doesn’t support it, and it could be bad for business.

But Benicia may go ahead and make it a requirement anyway.

“I think the majority of the council, I guess we’ll see, but I think the majority of the community is of the opinion that the direction the county is taking is not necessarily in the long-term health and safety interest of our community,” said Benicia Mayor, Steve Young.

Benicia dropped its indoor mask mandate in June when the state opened up and Covid appeared to be on its way out.

The Delta variant, however, is prompting a potential pivot.

The council will decide Tuesday whether to be the first city in its county to reprise an indoor mask mandate in public spaces, like retail and restaurant, a move already made at the county level in most of the Bay Area.

A business owner says a uniform policy in Benicia would make things easier on establishments that can only put up recommendation signs they really can’t enforce.

“It is what it is. I mean, you really can’t. We just have to trust people. That’s really all we can do,” said Cecilia Climaco, owner of Succulents and More.

A recent cancer survivor says she’s onboard with her city joining the majority of the Bay Area.

“I think since most of the Bay Area is requiring it we ought to too,” said Margaret Linderman.

Another resident also supports the city mandating masks, but doesn’t take issue with different places doing their own thing.

“I think because different areas have different problems with Covid, so I think it should be up to each city to make their own rules,” said Alicia Gallagher.

The Mayor says it’s potentially unsafe to have unmasked, unvaccinated people interacting closely indoors with workers that really don’t have a choice.

It’s also unfortunate, he says, that cities and counties are again having to consider requiring behaviors people could well do on their own.

It’s personally frustrating because if everybody had been vaccinated, if everybody was wearing a mask, we wouldn’t be here, but that’s clearly not the case,” said Mayor Young.

The City Council will vote on the ordinance at their meeting Tuesday and need just three of five members to approve.

The Mayor says the Health Director will be phoning-in to argue against approval.

If passed, the mandate would be temporary, perhaps 90 days, but could also be extended or rescinded sooner, all depending on what the Delta variant is doing.

Masks in Benicia – now a political decision rather than a health emergency

By Roger Straw, August 18, 2021

At its meeting last night, the Benicia City Council debated and approved a proposal to hold a special meeting next week to consider instituting a Citywide indoor mask mandate.

The meeting will be held next Tuesday, August 24 at 6pm.  Here’s the Agenda.

Some observers at yesterday’s meeting felt that Council members Trevor Macenski and Lionel Largaespada indicated likely opposition for the measure.  They have invited Solano County Health Officer Bela Matyas to attend next week.  Matyas is the ONLY county health officer in the Bay Area who has not instituted masking requirements to head off the spread of the Delta variant.  His presence next week will no doubt muddy the waters.

We can only hope that Council will get the required three votes.  It’s so sad that face coverings have become a political issue here in Benicia and Solano County.  We remember fondly how in March of 2020 our previous City Manager and City Council took charge and declared emergency action in the absence of leadership from the County.

Video of the August 17 City Council discussion and Public Comments on the mask mandate

NOTE: the Council discussion, public comments and action on the issue takes just under an hour, beginning at 1:37:53.  Public comments begin at 2:02:30.  Final discussion by Council begins at 2:23, and ends with the unanimous vote at 2:30:50.  (From there if you’re interested, the Council discusses COVID protocol for reopening the Council Chambers.)  And… if the above video does not work for you, you can click here to go to the City website to view the video clip on the mask mandate.

States scale back virus reporting just as cases surge

[BenIndy Editor: Here in Solano County, our Public Health Department scaled back on virus reporting a month ago, on June 23.  Solano now updates its COVID-19 Dashboard only on Mon., Wed. and Fri..  Previously, the dashboard was updated 5 days a week M-F.  – R.S.]

In this Jan. 11, 2021 file photo, Nebraska Gov. Pete Rickets points to vaccination statistics during a news conference in Lincoln, Neb. Several states scaled back their reporting on COVID-19 in July 2021, just as cases across the country tripled with the delta variant of the virus spreading quickly among the unvaccinated. The shift to weekly instead of daily reporting in Florida, Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota was also accompanied by less detail about the virus in Florida and Nebraska, and some officials described the move as part of a return to normal. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File)
Vallejo Times-Herald, By Josh Funk, The Associated Press, July 25, 2021

OMAHA,NEB.>> Several states scaled back their reporting of COVID-19 statistics this month just as cases across the country started to skyrocket, depriving the public of real-time information on outbreaks, cases, hospitalizations and deaths in their communities.

The shift to weekly instead of daily reporting in Florida, Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota marked a notable shift during a pandemic in which coronavirus dashboards have become a staple for Americans closely tracking case counts and trends to navigate a crisis that has killed more than 600,000 people in the U.S.

In Nebraska, the state actually stopped reporting on the virus altogether for two weeks after Gov. Pete Ricketts declared an end to the official virus emergency, forcing news reporters to file public records requests or turn to national websites that track state data to learn about COVID statistics. The state backtracked two weeks later and came up with a weekly site that provides some basic numbers.

Other governments have gone the other direction and released more information, with Washington, D.C., this week adding a dashboard on breakthrough cases to show the number of residents who contracted the virus after getting vaccines. Many states have recently gone to reporting virus numbers only on weekdays.

When Florida changed the frequency of its virus reporting earlier this month, officials said it made sense given the decreasing number of cases and the increasing number of people being vaccinated.

Cases started soaring soon after, and Florida earlier this week made up up one-fifth of the country’s new coronavirus infections. As a result, Florida’s weekly releases — typically done on Friday afternoons — have consequences for the country’s understanding of the current summer surge, with no statewide COVID stats coming out of the virus hotspot for six days a week.

In Florida’s last two weekly reports, the number of new cases shot up from 23,000 to 45,000 and then 73,000 on Friday, an average of more than 10,000 day. Hospitals are starting to run out of space in parts of the state. With cases rising, Democrats and other critics have urged state officials and Gov. Ron DeSantis to resume daily outbreak updates.

“There was absolutely no reason to eliminate the daily updates beyond an effort to pretend like there are no updates,” said state Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat from the Orlando area.

The trend of reducing data reporting has alarmed infectious disease specialists who believe that more information is better during a pandemic. People have come to rely on state virus dashboards to help make decisions about whether to attend large gatherings or wear masks in public, and understanding the level of risk in the community affects how people respond to virus restrictions and calls to get vaccinated.

“We know that showing the data to others actually is important because the actions that businesses take, the actions that schools take, the actions that civic leaders take, the actions that community leaders take, the actions that each of us individually take are all influenced by our perception of what the risk is out there,” said Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, who leads the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco.


Associated Press Writer Bobby Caina Calvan contributed to this report.