More Americans Tune Out Pandemic Amidst Omicron Surge : Consider This from NPR More people are hospitalized with COVID than at any point in the pandemic. But the omicron variant is also causing more Americans to tune out the pandemic and turn away from public health measures right when they're needed most. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

Even some vaccinated and boosted Americans are ready to move on from COVID, writes Derek Thompson in The Atlantic — a group he's dubbed 'vaxxed and done.' Thompson spoke to Jane Clayson on Here & Now, a production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

Additional reporting in this episode from NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff, who reported on why the omicron variant appears to be less deadly; and from NPR's Will Stone, who reported on hospitals struggling to manage the omicron surge.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment that will help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

More Vaxxed People Are Acting As If They're 'Done' With The Pandemic. Should They?

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Two years is a long time, but we are almost there. It was March 2020 when the World Health Organization officially declared a COVID-19 pandemic, when restaurants closed and Zoom became a daily part of many of our lives, when people began hoarding toilet paper and sanitizing groceries. Sure, habits and guidance have changed since then. But two years later, a lot of people are ready to be done.

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JANET WOODCOCK: I think it's hard to process what's actually happening right now, which is most people are going to get COVID, all right? And what we need to do is make sure the hospitals can still function.

KELLY: Janet Woodcock, speaking to a Senate committee last week - on the one hand, that could sound like fatalism in the face of the omicron surge. On the other, it could represent the best possible endgame - COVID, a disease that, thanks to vaccines, is no longer as deadly, something we all get, like a common cold.

ASHISH JHA: Yes. I think first of all, there is a little bit of fatalism on the current surge where people are saying, oh, everybody's going to get infected with omicron in this surge. I don't think that's true.

KELLY: Dr. Ashish Jha is a physician and dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. He told NPR he has a different take, that something closer to 20 or 30% of Americans will be infected in the current surge. But what about the next surge? What about the next variant? How do public health officials keep the public tuned in?

JHA: There's so much COVID out there. I think the key here is that, over the long run, eventually we will get to a point where this virus no longer poses a mortal risk to people.

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KELLY: CONSIDER THIS - many Americans are living like we are already at that point, and some are simply ready to move on. We'll look at how public health officials are confronting that reality. From NPR, I'm Mary Louise Kelly. It's Monday, January 17.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. First, some good news - there is growing evidence that omicron infection carries less risk of severe disease. Scientists think this has to do with how the variant infects the body.

RAVI GUPTA: And that was a real shock because we were seeing a virus that was spreading very, very rapidly, globally, and yet was really attenuated in certain cell types.

KELLY: Ravi Gupta, a microbiologist at Cambridge University, told NPR the omicron variant seems to use a different path to enter human cells, and that path likely causes less damage in the lungs.

GUPTA: And this, I think, is having quite marked consequences in terms of what we're seeing clinically, the lack of pneumonitis and sort of progression to requirement for oxygen that we were seeing in patients.

KELLY: Studies bear that out.

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ROCHELLE WALENSKY: Displayed on this slide are figures from this study.

KELLY: One study from California, cited by CDC Director Rochelle Walensky last week, found that patients with omicron were about half as likely to end up in the hospital compared to those with delta. And when they were hospitalized, they generally got better more quickly.

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WALENSKY: When compared to delta, infections with omicron were associated with a 74% reduction in adjusted risk of ICU admission and a 91% reduction in adjusted risk of mortality. No patients with omicron required mechanical ventilation.

KELLY: Hospital stays, on average, were also shorter for people with omicron. But plenty of people will get very sick and will die from the variant, especially those who are unvaccinated or at high risk. The bottom line is, even though there are some signs the surge may be peaking in parts of the country, omicron is sending more and more people to the hospital every day. According to CDC data, COVID hospitalizations are at an all-time high, eclipsing last winter's pre-vaccine surge.

BRADLEY DREIFUSS: Literally, there are patients in our emergency department who have been there for over 200 hours waiting for placement.

KELLY: Bradley Dreifuss, an ER doctor in Tucson, spoke to NPR last week.

DREIFUSS: Our hospitals are totally full. We're not able to admit patients. We don't even have admitting teams, currently. We are not able to get patients where they need to be because our system is literally collapsing.

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KELLY: This is the deadly contradiction of where we are in the pandemic right now - hospitals and health care workers overwhelmed and many everyday Americans overwhelmed in a different way - overwhelmed by masking, quarantines, CDC guidelines. And they're turning away from public health measures right when they are needed the most. Here's NPR's Yuki Noguchi.

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YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Jeff Fortenbacher is CEO of Access Health. It's a nonprofit offering discounted health insurance and health counseling to disadvantaged patients in Muskegon, Mich. Among the poor and minority populations there, a mere 14% of people are fully vaccinated. Fortenbacher says they don't get good information on health, in general.

JEFF FORTENBACHER: It just cuts across that whole issue of trust and suspicion and just not getting the information.

NOGUCHI: That problem is only getting worse. Fortenbacher says after two years of mask, isolation, travel and vaccine recommendations, many are just checked out.

FORTENBACHER: I mean, it's almost like white noise.

NOGUCHI: Like recently, when the CDC changed its isolation guidelines - that sowed still more confusion.

FORTENBACHER: It's just becoming very draining, emotionally draining. It's very politicized, and people are just kind of - they're getting tired.

NOGUCHI: As in many other areas, Muskegon's COVID caseloads are climbing. Those who are fully vaccinated are far less likely to die or get hospitalized. But the fact that vaccinated people are getting infected at all, Fortenbacher says, seems to contradict a common, but inaccurate, notion that COVID vaccines block infections.

FORTENBACHER: I think that's confusing for people is that initial message was that if you get the vaccine, you're going to be OK. So then they're going, wait a minute; if we're supposed to get it because this is what it was supposed to do and it's not doing that, why should I do it?

NOGUCHI: Public health advocates acknowledge fewer people are paying attention or heeding expert advice. Many, including White House officials, concede they're now adapting their messages to the realities of a population with a waning appetite for warnings and mandates.

For Fortenbacher, that means recommending but not mandating masks - even in clinics. A requirement, he says, would likely undercut their health goals by alienating some patients.

FORTENBACHER: If you require them to mask up, you aren't going to accomplish what you need to accomplish with them because you aren't going to engage them because they're going to be so pissed off. It's really kind of just walking that line.

NOGUCHI: That comes with risks, too. Namely, it could prolong the pandemic.

ADRIANE CASALOTTI: They might be done with the pandemic. The pandemic's not done with them.

NOGUCHI: Adriane Casalotti heads government affairs for the National Association of City and County Health Officials. She says people are no longer taking their calls.

CASALOTTI: They're not picking up their phone when the contact tracers call them. They are not giving information about who they've been in contact with or where they've been so that the contact tracers could follow up on that.

NOGUCHI: And that hampered that early warning system even before omicron spread. But she says people are still interested in what's happening in their local area.

CASALOTTI: Well, if you can talk about your county, if you can talk about your corner of a state and look at the data in that way to be more specific about what's actually happening to your friends and neighbors, that's another way to try and bring these big conversations more to life.

NOGUCHI: Casalotti, like many others, argues that guidance needs to be simpler.

CASALOTTI: The bumper-sticker version is a lot easier than the three-page version, or even the three-paragraph version.

NOGUCHI: The problem is the pandemic is not simple to understand. Public health recommendations are based on evolving understanding of a new science, so messaging changes. Georges Benjamin heads the American Public Health Association.

GEORGES BENJAMIN: The challenge we always have with communication is they always say people need to hear things seven times before it really sticks.

NOGUCHI: Benjamin says because of vaccines, the world has made a lot of progress. He argues messages should focus more on possible roadmaps for the future.

BENJAMIN: There is a reluctance to give people information because we're afraid of being wrong three months from now. But I do think we have to give people a sense of hope, and we need to tell people what we anticipate going forward and how this ends.

NOGUCHI: They might tune back in, he says, if the message is about life after the pandemic.

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KELLY: NPR's Yuki Noguchi.

Life after the pandemic - doesn't that sound great? Well, it is where a lot of people hoped and expected to be once vaccines were widely available, and they have been for more than a year. Now that many Americans have had not one, not two, but three shots, there's a growing divide between vaccinated people who are really ready to move on from restrictions and vaccinated people who aren't there yet.

Derek Thompson, senior writer for The Atlantic, wrote about what is driving that divide. He discussed it with NPR and WBUR's Jane Clayson.

JANE CLAYSON, BYLINE: Explain why this is happening now at this particular point in the pandemic and with the omicron variant in particular.

DEREK THOMPSON: I think the omicron variant is like - you could call it the confirmation bias variant - is making people who are extremely sensitive to individual risk, especially if they're vaccinated and boosted, look at their own risk situation and say, there's practically no risk that this poses to me. But then you also have people focused on the sort of collectivist view looking at - well, wait, if I get sick and then I get someone else sick, maybe they'll interact with someone who's 75, or they'll interact with someone who is immunocompromised - so I'll remain extremely cautious.

But I think that omicron has furthered the distance between these two groups. And I call Group 1 vaxxed and done...

CLAYSON: Yes.

THOMPSON: ...People who say, I've done everything that's been asked of me and now I'm done. And then Group 2 are the vaxxed and still cautious, saying, yes, I'm vaxxed, yes, I'm boosted, but my mind is still fixated on these trains of transmission rather than just individual risk.

CLAYSON: So talk more about that. I mean, people - are they just tired of and frustrated by the pandemic? It's been going on almost two years now. Or are people just coming to terms with this virus being endemic? You know, it's like the flu. It'll always be with us.

THOMPSON: I think that the answer to the first question is yes, and it leads into a feeling that the answer to the second question is yes. So you have a lot of people who are saying this is a variant that, for whatever reason, appears to be milder on a per-case basis. We should have a different attitude toward the variant.

We have lived for, you know, many, many years, decades, maybe centuries with seasonal flu, which yes, kills tens of thousands of people a year, but this group is saying those things happen, those deaths happen, but we don't shut down schools, we don't shut down society, and we should maybe move to a similar attitude toward COVID itself.

But then again, I do think you have a large group of people in the vaxxed-and-cautious cohort who just aren't buying this, who still feel like in January 2022, we should have a lot of the same restrictions that we had last year and the year before.

CLAYSON: And is one group obviously right here, Derek, and what's your view about how vaccinated people should be viewing this situation?

THOMPSON: So I wrote this article in part because I felt myself torn between these two groups and in part because I really did want to do my best to ventriloquize, I guess you could say, to summarize two attitudes that I thought had a lot of good arguments on their side. On the one hand, I totally buy the argument from the vaxxed-and-done community that as a disease moves toward endemicity, moves toward being endemic, we need to evolve towards stoicism. We need to evolve towards an attitude that this may be with us for a long, long, long time, which means emergency restrictions don't necessarily make sense the same way they would in a six-month plague.

At the same time, you know, it's impossible for me to forget the fact that, you know, even though I am 35 years old without small kids and boosted, there are a lot of people that are not in my boat whose risk of severe illness contingent upon getting this disease is something between 10 and a hundred times greater than it is for me. So my decisions aren't purely individual. I can't put a wall up around my decisions. They will affect other people. And so that is keeping me from fully signing on to the vaxxed-and-done philosophy.

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KELLY: Derek Thompson, senior writer at The Atlantic. There's a link to his piece about the divide among vaccinated Americans in our episode notes. You also heard reporting in this episode on the omicron variant and how hospitals are dealing with it from NPR correspondents Will Stone and Michaeleen Doucleff.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

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