CHICAGO — With infection rates mounting, the Omicron variant has ushered in a new and disorienting phase of the pandemic, leaving Americans frustrated and dismayed that the basic elements they thought they understood about the coronavirus are shifting faster than ever.
There were reasons for heightened concern and reasons for consolation: Omicron is more transmissible than previous variants, yet it appears to cause milder symptoms in many people. Hospitalizations have soared to new highs in some states, but “incidental patients” — people who test positive for Covid-19 after being admitted for another reason — make up close to half of their cases in some hospitals.
Public health officials, in response to the new variant, have halved the recommended isolation period for people with positive tests to five days from 10 days, while also suggesting people upgrade their masks from cloth to medical-grade when possible.
“Omicron has turned, quickly, into something that is just different,” said Dr. Allison Arwady, Chicago’s top health official.
President Biden’s own former transition team has called on the president to adopt an entirely new domestic pandemic strategy geared to the “new normal” of living with the virus indefinitely, not to wiping it out.
And Americans, confronted with these new sets of facts, warnings and advisories, have responded with a mix of confusion, vigilance and indifference. Left mainly to navigate it all on their own, they must sort through an array of uncertain risks — ride a bus? visit friends? eat inside? — hour by hour.
India, bracing for a tidal wave of infections with only half its population vaccinated, has set up makeshift Covid wards in convention halls. In Argentina recently, the test positivity rate rose to a staggering 30 percent.
But with signs that the wave of Omicron in South Africa is receding, without bringing a huge new surge of deaths, many countries have moved to a strategy of living with the virus, opting to keep businesses and schools open rather than risk the economic havoc of more lockdowns.
Health officials in the United States, weary from two years of repeating similar pleas to the public, have tried to emphasize that the Omicron variant is like no other phase of the pandemic.
Daily case reports have roughly quintupled over the last month as Omicron has taken hold. About 650,000 new cases are being identified each day, more than twice as many as at last winter’s peak — a number that is certainly an undercount, since it does not include many results from at-home antigen tests.