Pandemic lulls aren't meant to last. There are new signs that the United States might — emphasis on might — be about to undergo another spike in COVID-19 cases. The CDC this week confirmed that wastewater sampling is showing increased amounts of virus in cities across the country, and a new Omicron subvariant is fueling a fresh wave of illness in Europe. Maybe we'll see a rise in hospitalizations and deaths again, maybe we won't, and it's pointless to panic. But this doesn't seem like a good moment to let our guard down too much.
Somehow, we're not prepared.
The White House and Congress are stuck in gridlock, haggling over a new COVID relief bill that would provide $15 billion in fresh funding for testing, stocks of antiviral drugs for those who need them, and free vaccines for those who want them. Without that money, officials warn those supplies and services will dry up very quickly.
"Time is not on our side," an administration official told ABC News. "We need the funding immediately."
So what's the holdup? Arguments over how to pay for the bill, and how long. The details of that debate are less interesting — and less important — than the clear need to be ready if and when the pandemic gets vicious again. Why can't the United States get this right, at long last? We've had enough practice by now, haven't we?
Maybe our attention is diverted: There's a war in Ukraine, after all, that has understandably sucked all the conversational oxygen out of the room. Maybe we've been comforted by the plunging hospitalizations and death rates following the quick-and-dirty Omicron wave. Or maybe we've simply decided that the virus is endemic, no longer worthy of emergency panic after two slogging years.
These are bad excuses. The virus isn't going away because of Russia's invasion — if anything, the war might serve as a breeding ground for COVID and other viruses. Coronavirus deaths are down, but they're still pretty high: 1,268 Americans died of the disease on Wednesday. (For comparison, the CDC says roughly 1,500 people have died of the flu this entire flu season.) And even if the virus has become endemic, that's no reason for federal government inaction. "An endemic threat isn't one that can be ignored but one that must be managed," The Atlantic's Ed Yong wrote Thursday.
The story of the coronavirus pandemic is one of American leaders getting caught with their pants down over and over again. The government wasn't ready for the original virus, prematurely celebrated right before the Delta variant struck, and was still slow to ramp up testing availability ahead of the Omicron spike that started late last year. It's a bipartisan problem. And it leaves us staring down the possibility of another COVID wave without our best defenses firmly in place.