When Naisha and Nivaan Jha returned to school after the winter holidays, their parents were expecting the school to have a testing system in place as the United States (US) is facing the steepest COVID-19 surge of the pandemic. The country is recording close to 700,000 new infections every day, the highest so far. Eight Americans are testing positive per second, and at this rate the country is likely to cross the one million new cases daily mark soon.
Madhu Bhatia Jha, Naisha and Nivaan’s mother, is concerned, “Our kids are going to in-person school without any testing! This thing is highly infectious.” The Indian Prairie School District of the suburban Naperville on the outskirts of Chicago, only asked "all people to monitor for any Covid 19 symptoms."
Their email to parents further mentioned that they "are not able to require you to take a Covid-19 test," and acknowledged "the difficulty to even acquire a test due to the shortage."
A shortage of tests in the ‘world’s richest country’ two years into the pandemic and uneven messaging from medical authorities is leaving families bewildered. Shortening the quarantine period for those infected, coming out of the quarantine with or without testing, double mask or single mask, N-95 or medical masks – the guidelines keep changing randomly.
Plus, "where are the home tests?” asks Madhu, whose only relief is that both her children are vaccinated. School districts are being left to themselves when deciding about making testing mandatory or not. Many have the budgets, many don’t.
'No End in Sight'
This is the dilemma that parents are fraught with in the US as they acknowledge the academic and social-emotional benefits of in-person learning for children, but worry for their health. Ruby Kaur of San Jose is glad that her older son’s college has postponed its reopening till the end of January, but is very concerned for her younger son who is a high schooler.
"Agam went to school the first day after the winter holidays to realise that there were far too many positive cases that came up during testing, plus masking wasn’t appropriate. He did not go to school the next day. But what are we supposed to do? How can we keep him home for many weeks? There is no end in sight," says Ruby, who took Agam for a booster jab to enhance safety.
The same day (7 January), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Dr Rochelle Walensky announced that "paediatric hospitalisations are at the highest rate compared to any prior point in the pandemic."
American Academy of Pediatrics noted a 64% increase in the new cases at the beginning of January over the previous week. The CDC expanded the eligibility of boosters for the 12-15 years bracket on 3 January.
Teachers Are No Less Stressed
It is not only the students and parents who are stressed, but teachers too. Various school boards are once again facing an acute shortage of teachers and substitute teachers.
Districts are scrambling to keep schools open, as disputes play out over whether in-person learning is ideal during the Omicron surge. A fight between Chicago’s mayor and the city teachers’ union is one of many that shows how unprepared the US was for the Omicron onslaught. COVID-19 cases have skyrocketed in Chicago to their highest since the pandemic began.
Chicago’s mayor criticised teachers for voting against in-person learning, while representatives for the teachers noted that the administration had not committed to meeting teachers’ demands for testing of students and staff, resulting in schools not reopening after the winter break.
On 7 January, 500 teachers in San Francisco Bay Area’s Oakland city, staged a ‘sick-out’ – calling in sick – to demand the closure of schools citing unsafe working conditions, sending school officials and families scrambling.
Teachers’ unions in New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Connecticut are pushing for remote learning. Schools in Newark, Atlanta, Milwaukee, and Cleveland chose to go temporarily remote, while New York, California, Seattle, Washington DC, and others chose testing to keep in-person learning. President Joe Biden said on 4 January, "We have no reason to think at this point that Omicron is worse for children than previous variants. We know that our kids can be safe when in school."
The state of the pandemic is throwing up similar challenges for entrepreneurs. Shilpi Goel is the owner of My Fair Lady salon in San Francisco Bay Area’s Foster City.
"It is reassuring that there is a testing station every morning from 8am to 8.30am at my daughter’s high school, but business at the salon has been slightly slower after Christmas, as expected. We did only 70% of business in 2021 compared to previous years," shares Shilpi, adding, "There will only be soft lockdowns. If anyone in my salon gets positive, we will close down till everyone is negative. So no hard lockdowns. We are back to our six-layer masking and sanitizing. But just like my daughter’s school, there will be no contact tracing."
Unlike the initial months in the pandemic and last winter’s surge, restaurants, malls, spas, gyms, offices, manufacturing, sporting events, cinemas, etc, are open, even though high tech offices like Google and Facebook have delayed reopening offices. Grammys have been postponed but Superbowl is on.
Vaccinations as a Source of Optimism
More than 138,000 COVID-19 patients are in US hospitals, not far from the peak of 142,200 from mid-January of 2021. More than 1,000 persons are dying of Covid in US daily. 24% of US hospitals are on the brink with severe staff shortages according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.
Physicians at The Mayo Clinic in Minnesota are concerned about breakthrough cases in medical workers inundating their system. "There is a steep rise in cases. We are bracing for a huge rise in hospitalisations. Few weeks back, we had a Delta surge and we have quite a few cases now, so breakthrough infections can occur," says Dr Priya Sampathkumar, an Infectious Disease Specialist at The Mayo Clinic.
But she agrees that severe lockdowns are in the past. "Because we have a much better vaccinated population, there isn’t a big appetite for lockdowns. They come at a big price. We have a lot of tools available to be able to go about life, including therapeutics for those at risk if they get infected. Open ended lockdowns in schools are hard on parents and children," explains Dr Sampathkumar.
About 62.5% of the US population has been double vaccinated and 23% have received booster shots as well, as per the CDC.
Initial accounts about Omicron’s inherent severity are encouraging, "Certainly seems that this virus is less virulent in the vaccinated. If you are very young and healthy and vaccinated, you have mild illness. If you are not vaccinated or are immune-suppressed, based on data from the world, you might get severe illness. If we can distribute vaccines and boosters around the world it will help a lot," stresses Dr Sampathkumar, who has been vocal about vaccine equity.
Despite Omicron’s reduced illness severity, experts warn that the number of ICU patients is likely to rise in the coming weeks.
As of 1 January, Omicron represented more than 95% of the US COVID-19 cases, according to the CDC. Essential workers like firefighters and police officials are in short supply, many infected and isolating. Restrictions are being clamped down on unvaccinated people in many states amid this seemingly unstoppable surge in infections.
The anti-vaccination lobby triumphantly believes that the current wave proves that COVID-19 cannot be overpowered by vaccine-related herd immunity. In evidence of US' polarised pandemic response, President Biden’s plan to mandate jabs for some 84 million workers in large businesses (over 100 employees) were scuttled by the conservative justices of the US Supreme Court in oral arguments on 7 January.
One aspect that unites the country is shortage of test kits. The US’ approach to crush COVID-19 has revolved around its vaccination campaign. Lack of a multipronged approach resulted in authorities not ramping up production of test kits adequately to face another surge. People are waiting for hours in miles-long lines to get tested, similar to scenes from 2020.
But the speed is decimating systems. Landed in US just six weeks back, the Omicron variant is hurtling through the US at a tornado speed. The silver lining is that tornadoes exit fast.
Till then Americans are hoping that this is close to the end game. Depending on hospital capacity and vaccination rates, different US counties and states are deploying different protocols to tackle the Omicron spike. Constantly changing advice on quarantine periods comes in response to the constantly changing virus.
Amidst skyrocketing new infections, Americans are wishing that they are moving from a pandemic to an endemic, as the mayor of San Francisco, London Breed said, "We are learning what it means to live with COVID."
(Savita Patel is a senior journalist and producer, who produced ‘Worldview India’, a weekly international affairs show, and produced ‘Across Seven Seas’, a diaspora show, both with World Report, aired on DD. She has also covered stories for Voice of America TV from California. She’s currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She tweets @SsavitaPatel.)