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MERCER: No holiday from masks, tests as omicron surges

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Virus Outbreak China Daily Life

AS omicron tightens its grip, the mayor of Washington, D.C. has declared a state of emergency.

Once again, masks are required indoors in such places as churches, gyms and grocery stores, regardless of vaccination status. Masks are not yet required in restaurants and bars in the nation’s capital, as they are in New York and Los Angeles.

“I think we’re all tired of it. I’m tired of it, too,” Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser said, announcing the mask mandate will last until Jan. 31. “But we have to respond to what’s happening in our city and what’s happening in our nation.”

The mayor is correct. What’s happening is nearly three-fourths of the new coronavirus cases in the United States now are from the highly transmissible omicron variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday. Coronavirus daily case totals are at their highest level since last summer.

There is no statewide mask mandate in Virginia, but the Virginia Department of Health recommends masks be worn indoors in communities with substantial or high COVID-19 transmission.

More than 800,000 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19. Public health officials knew the coronavirus mutates and new variants were likely. Still, fast-spreading omicron caught nearly everyone by surprise last month.

Much remains unknown, including whether the illness omicron causes is less severe than the delta variant’s, and what the long-term effects of even a mild case may be.

The first death in the U.S. related to omicron was announced Monday. The victim was an unvaccinated man in his 50s with an underlying health condition in Houston, authorities said.

So, while we all feel coronavirus fatigue, we find ourselves on the verge of another new year having to rally again to fight an insidious, unpredictable virus.

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who died this year, once said you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might wish you had.

It’s wrong that Americans have had to stand in line for hours for coronavirus tests, as they have in some parts of the country. Other nations long have been able to supply their residents with free, at-home test kits.

The Biden administration now is rushing to make available, starting next month, 500 million free, rapid, in-home coronavirus test kits. The government is opening more testing and vaccination sites, deploying military medical teams to overwhelmed hospitals and plans to expand hospital capacity.

These are important changes that remind us we are not in the same place we were a year ago. Last year during the holidays, we glimpsed the hope of vaccinations as the end of the pandemic. This year, we know the pandemic still is with us, and we are lucky if all we must endure are its inconveniences.

Mask and vaccination mandates cannot be partisan when the virus is bipartisan. U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., who both are vaccinated and boosted, tested positive for COVID-19, as did Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican and a cancer survivor.

Breakthrough COVID-19 cases are common. President Joe Biden, recently sat near someone on Air Force One who later tested positive.

Most breakthrough cases seem to be mild, which is why Biden is urging every eligible American to get fully vaccinated and boosted.

And yet, when former President Donald Trump said Sunday in Texas he had received a booster, some in the audience booed. That’s a sad commentary on the misguided, ill-informed, anti-vax crowd.

Fortunately, there are no plans for lockdowns or a widespread return to remote schooling. We are learning to live with uncertainty.

Wearing an effective mask, such as the N95; getting vaccinated and boosted; and getting tested if we feel sick or are exposed to someone with COVID-19 are steps all of us can take to protect ourselves and others.

Those who feel their personal liberty is abridged by mask mandates can do something about it: They can stay home, off public transportation and out of public places.

As much as we Americans don’t like rules or mandates, especially rules that change, we must live in the real world. We all want the pandemic to end. We also want our families, friends and ourselves to be around next year. Be vigilant.

Marsha Mercer, an independent journalist and editor, writes from Washington, D.C. Write her at marsha.mercer@yahoo.com.

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