Don Martin: Ready. Fire. Aim. How the feds are targeting Omicron
FORT MYERS, FL. -- Bobbing in the pool with a noodle for extra floatation, the Floridian gasped in disbelief as I listed Canada’s mobility limits on the unvaccinated.
No planes, no trains, no buses. No restaurants, no bars, no theatres. No wedding receptions, no company Christmas parties, no federally regulated jobs.
All off-limits because of what this seemingly-intelligent retail research manager argued was an unacceptable imposition on personal choice for her body, a view worthy of major pushback if we weren’t sitting by a pool in the heart of Donald Trump-lovin’ Lee County.
In Canada, I rather meekly pointed out as she drifted away in search of friendlier conversation, she would be choosing a severely limited lifestyle.
Masks are extremely optional down here - and the option to go without one is exercised by 90 per cent of shoppers, 99 per cent of diners and 100 per cent of beachgoers.
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To enter a hardware store wearing a mask means you will be immediately identified as a staffer and asked for directions to the plumbing department. To wear one indoors in a restaurant means you’re a Biden-loving Democrat or a Canadian. Only in drug stores are masks a common sight.
Yet, strangely, the state has only double the COVID case count of Ontario on November 30, which has three-quarters of Florida’s population, and the number is inexplicably dropping.
Perhaps that’s why Omicron has not raised any alarms here beyond public health officials warning it’s probably already circulating in the sunshine state.
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And, predictably, Gov. Ron DeSantis has vowed no change in Florida’s hands-off masks-off policies in confronting the “media-driven hysteria” of the new variant.
“You can’t cripple your society for fear of a variant where we don’t even have any really meaningful data on,” DeSantis argued this week. “The South African doctor that identified it, she said this has been very mild, and so why would you be doing knee jerk reactions?”
Which brings us to polar-opposite Canada’s reaction or overreaction to Omicron on this, the six-day mark since it became headline news as an ominous viral question mark.
In many ways the federal cabinet was backed into a "damned if you do or don’t" corner on fending off this latest invisible predator, despite lingering questions about the severity of its symptoms and vaccine-vulnerability.
To wait for all the answers while it spread exponentially would open the door to all sorts of retroactive criticism if the variant goes rampant and is worse than it initially appears.
But if the federal response is just to impose on-arrival airport testing on the double-vaccinated who had been PCR departure-tested just two days earlier (which is a major inconvenience if my friends’ experience this week is any indication), it’s a flailing-about response divorced from the actual risk of transmission.
After all, if a fully vaccinated and negative-tested traveller caught Omicron in a foreign departure lounge or on the flight home, it probably wouldn’t show up at the Canadian arrival gate. It would take a few days to set into the carrier’s nasal cavity only to start spreading once they unmasked in a local pub.
So what’s the point?
Optics are the point. To be seen as doing something even when nothing can be done is to appear assertive in the face of helplessness. Thus has been deployed the traditional government response: Ready. Fire. Aim.
Travel bans and border control testing didn’t stop the original COVID-19 variant from arriving, it didn’t stop Delta from becoming the dominant virus and it won’t stop Omicron from taking over, if it is indeed a more virulent strain.
Given that our society and economy will not accept another prolonged lockdown against a variant that may have all the nastiness of a common cold, one which will eventually find its way into the unvaccinated in any event, the best answers are obvious.
We must push harder for everyone’s vaccination, move faster on boosters, become more aggressive in rapid testing in places where the variant could actually be spreading, waive vaccine patent protection to accelerate supplies for the developing world and make sure people like my pool friend can’t enter Canada until they get double shots.
While it might befuddle Floridians, that’s why Canada is doing the right thing on severely limiting access to indoor public spaces for the unvaccinated, even though our case count is not dramatically different from theirs.
But it may be we’re on a flight path that’s drifting too far in the wrong direction.
If the government response is to ban flights from every country suffering an Omicron outbreak, it won’t be long before our airspace is closed again to all foreign travel (and vice versa).
To excuse U.S. arrivals from testing doesn’t catch travellers arriving from other countries through a U.S. airport.
And to double-test double-vaccinated travellers twice in 72 hours sends a message to the hesitant that vaccination offers insufficient protection for your health and those around you.
So let’s stop with the political over-reactions and let common-sense public health policy prevail.
If this week’s moves are locked in and tightened as our first response to Omicron, we’re just repeating what didn’t work before while expecting different results. Which is the classic definition of insanity.
That’s the bottom line.