Andrew Noymer, a public health professor at the University of California, Irvine, said that the Omicron variant has been “legitimately complicated” for many Americans to comprehend, since it clearly differs from previous variants.

“Omicron is milder than Delta, but it’s more transmissible,” he said. “It’s changing two things at once.”

Shifting advice on isolation and quarantines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also left Americans with questions about the seriousness of the variant. Many employers, acting on guidance from public health officials, have encouraged sick workers to return to their jobs after only five days, even without a test showing that they are negative for the virus.

“The confusion is compounded,” said Dr. Gill Wright, the city health director in Nashville. “People are saying, this is supposed to get really bad, but we can go back to work quicker?”

In rural Michigan, people with coronavirus symptoms have arrived at hospitals in recent weeks repeating the conventional wisdom that once you have had Covid, you are unlikely to contract it again quickly.

“A lot of them say, ‘It can’t be Covid, I just had it a few months ago,’” said Dr. Mark Hamed, an emergency room physician in Sandusky, Mich. “Lo and behold, they test positive.”

Roughly 62 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated, a number that has barely budged in recent weeks. Even fully vaccinated and boosted individuals have become infected with the Omicron variant, though health officials say that their infections appear less severe than in the unvaccinated.

Across the country, record numbers of public employees have been off the job as a result of surging coronavirus infections, leaving officials scrambling to reassure residents that if they call 911, someone will show up — if a little later than normal.

In Dallas, 204 of the roughly 2,100 employees of the city’s fire and rescue department were in quarantine on Thursday because of positive Covid-19 tests — the most since the beginning of the pandemic, according to Jason Evans, the department’s spokesman. He said that approximately one-quarter of the department’s total positive tests since March 2020 were from the last two weeks.

Los Angeles city officials said at a news conference on Thursday that almost 300 firefighters were off duty because of the virus, the most the department had seen at any one time. Jeff Cretan, a spokesman for Mayor London Breed of San Francisco, said that 140 employees of the fire department and 188 employees of the city police department had tested positive or were out because of quarantine protocols; so were 110 workers at the city’s transit agency.

Schools and colleges were facing the uncertainty of whether to conduct classes in person or virtually, sometimes while balancing competing arguments from parents, teachers and students.

In Chicago last week, the powerful teachers union and Mayor Lori Lightfoot clashed over coronavirus safety and testing in a dispute that has closed schools for several days in the nation’s third-largest school district.

At Rhodes College, a small liberal arts school in Memphis, officials announced over the holiday break that the start of in-person classes was being delayed two weeks — a disappointment for students exasperated with online classes and eager for the kind of college experience they had hoped for.

“Every semester, it feels like we’re almost back to normal and then it gets revoked one more time,” said John Howell, a senior political economy and philosophy major starting his final semester. “It feels like every routine is going to be broken and you should just expect that.”

Bishop James Dixon, the senior pastor at the Community of Faith Church in Houston, said that he and his fellow church leaders have found themselves struggling to strike the right balance as Omicron spreads.

“No one has a set answer,” he said. “It’s trial and error. It’s trepidatious. And we’re supposed to be people of faith and make a decision and take a direction.”

Mr. Dixon said the virus had caused a scare among many congregants because they know so many people now who have gotten it.

“Things are better than they were,” he said, “but simultaneously they’re worse than they were because numbers are soaring.”

Shashank Bengali contributed reporting from London, Jill Cowan from Los Angeles, J. David Goodman from Houston, Rick Rojas from Nashville and Mitch Smith from Chicago.

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