Even before the arrival of Omicron, the winter months were going to be tough for parts of the United States. While COVID transmission rates in the South caught fire over the summer, the Northeast and Great Plains states were largely spared thanks to cyclical factors and high vaccination rates. But weather and the patterns of human life were bound to shift the disease burden northward for the holidays—and that was just with Delta. Enter a new variant that appears better able to evade immunity, and that seasonal wave could end up a tsunami.
Back in July, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky announced that COVID had become “a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” an unfortunate turn of phrase that was soon picked up by the president. Now the flaws in its logic are about to be exposed on what could be a terrifying scale. Unvaccinated Americans will certainly pay the steepest price in the months to come, but the risks appear to have grown for everyone. The pandemic of the vaccinated can no longer be denied.
The 60 percent of Americans who are fully vaccinated could soon find their lives looking very different. For much of the summer and fall, those who had received two Pfizer or Moderna doses or one Johnson & Johnson shot were told that they were essentially bulletproof, especially if they were young and healthy. But preliminary data from South Africa and Europe now suggest that two vaccine doses alone might still allow for frequent breakthrough infections and rapid spread of the disease—even if hospitalization and death remain unlikely. Getting three shots, or two shots plus a previous bout of COVID, seems to offer more protection. For Saad Omer, the director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, that’s enough evidence to justify changing the CDC’s definition of full vaccination. “With Omicron and the data emerging, I think there is no reason why we shouldn’t have a pretty strong push for everyone to have boosters,” he told me.