Covid cases across the U.S. continue to surge, with the omicron variant quickly spreading from state to state. The U.S. recorded more than 204,000 new cases of the virus on December 21, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Businesses have started responding to the surge. Some retailers and restaurants shut their doors, at least temporarily, as a result of cases among their employees and fear of infection. Many people are hunkering down and thinking about what products to stock up on.
The moment calls back to what it felt like when the U.S. first went into lockdown in response to the coronavirus.
In a Tuesday address from the White House, President Joe Biden addressed the sense that circumstances seem eerily, depressingly familiar. Concerned people are asking, "Are we going back to March 2020?" he said, and "the answer is absolutely no. No."
This particular moment is different from that one for several reasons, Biden said. One among them: Hospitals are more equipped for and better able to handle the virus. Experts agree. Here are four key reasons they say this moment, and this Covid surge, is distinct from March 2020.
"From the economic standpoint, one of the clear differences is that we've had almost two years of experience dealing with a serious pandemic," says Gary Burtless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "Up until March 2020, we had not had a pandemic in the United States since 1918."
In the second quarter of 2020, the U.S. economy had lost seven percentage points of compensation, he says, which measures both how many people are employed and how much they're getting paid. "That is a massive recession," he says.
But "the Federal Reserve Board, Congress, the administration reacted very, very quickly, and they took economic measures that were effective in keeping income flowing to America's households," he says.
"One thing people did was, instead of buying services," he says, "they started to buy a lot of goods and prepare stuff in their own homes." So the U.S. climbed out of that recession "relatively quickly."
"What it says is, the combination of government action and the resourcefulness of American households and American businesses has been enough to bring us back up above the level [of compensation] that we were before the pandemic," he says.
"So that's one thing we know now in December 2021 that we didn't know in March 2020." That is, the U.S. knows these tools ― individual to legislative ― are effective in helping the economy to bounce back, even in the face of a sharp decline.
From a public health standpoint, one major difference is "at the beginning of the pandemic, masks were actively discouraged because of the problems with the supply chain and the lack of clarity in terms of the science," says Cheryl Healton, dean of New York University's School of Global Public Health.
That's changed, she notes. Masks "are now encouraged, and they're available and required in many, many settings and in various regions of the country." In terms of public health, she says, "that's a step forward."
If you're looking for a mask, a study published online in Science by researchers from universities including Stanford and Yale found that surgical masks were 95% effective at filtering out particles, compared to cloth masks, which were just 37% effective.
It's significantly easier to get tested now than it was in March 2020. "We have both PCR and antigen tests available and encouraged," says Healton. "The supply was grossly limited previously."
"Low or no-cost Covid tests are available to everyone in the U.S.," according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
As the omicron variant surges, this particular moment presents more challenges to getting tested. Places like New York City, in which the positivity rate, or level of infection, doubled in just one week, according to the New York City Department of Health, are seeing hours-long lines to get tested and delays in testing results. At-home test kits are selling out quickly at places like CVS and Walgreens.
If you'd like to get tested, find a location near you using the HHS website, check online to see which local pharmacy or mom-and-pop shop has at-home tests in stock, or check to see if your local health department is offering free at-home kits.
The president announced the federal government would start mailing free at-home Covid tests in January to households that request them.
One of the biggest and most important differences between now and March 2020 is that "we now have vaccines of varying efficacy and the ability to fairly quickly tailor them to new variants," says Healton.
"I'm including the ones that are being distributed around the world," she says, because "the world matters to us. That's how we got omicron, that's how it came here."
Nearly 62% of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated, according to the Mayo Clinic.
In the U.S., the Covid vaccine is free. Find a vaccine center near you using Vaccines.gov.
Healton believes more can be done from a public health perspective, like greater access to masks and stricter mask mandates where necessary. Still, the availability of masks, tests, and vaccines helps: "None of those things were the case in March 2020."
There are challenges to maneuvering and trying to stay healthy in this particular moment. "It's about being careful, it's not about stopping your life," says Healton. "But it's also understanding that it's an airborne illness. And if you are going into an environment with a lot of people who are unmasked, like a bar environment or a restaurant environment, you are taking a risk."
"The most important thing is, if we want things to be good, we have to be good," she says. "And being good includes getting vaccinated. There's no replacement for it."
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