“Second verse, same as the first…”

As we enter our third calendar year with a novel coronavirus discovered in late 2019, we see that though some things change with the turning of the calendar that other things do not. Much like how avoidance rarely solves an issue, but rather simply delays its inevitable effects, we find those wanting to be rid of this virus again at the mercy of the critical few whose voluntary inaction has allowed the virus to now manifest into its 13th major variant in 39 months — this variant is called Omicron.

For those questioning the 13th variation, very briefly, you should know the World Health Organization (WHO) names the variants based on a ranking system for how concerning they are, and the ones that get Greek alphabet names are because they have been deemed to reach a level called a “variant of interest.”

According to a WHO quote in a USA Today story by Ryan W. Miller from Nov. 29, 2021: “A ‘variant of interest’ is associated ‘with genetic changes that are predicted or known to affect virus characteristics such as transmissibility, disease severity, immune escape, diagnostic or therapeutic escape and identified to cause significant community transmission or multiple COVID-19 clusters, in multiple countries with increasing relative prevalence alongside increasing number of cases over time, or other apparent epidemiological impacts to suggest an emerging risk to global public health,’ WHO says.”

I include this so that you understand that COVID-19 is adapting constantly, and 13 times those adaptations have been severe enough to be recognized as a ‘variant of interest’ and given a Greek name. According to CDC.gov the next stage beyond variant of interest is ‘variant of concern’ which is the level that both Delta and Omicron are currently at. This level is reached when there is some increased severity, some increased transmissibility, some reduction in the effectiveness of therapies or a combination of these factors. There is one final stage beyond that which is ‘variant of high consequence’ which is attained when there is significant loss in effective therapies or significant increases in severity or transmissibility.

The entire goal should be to never get to the variant of high consequence level because that means back to the lab to create new vaccines and treatments. In fact, the goal should’ve been to never get to “variant of concern” stage, but here we are.

The question is what do we do about it?

Our institutions face this dilemma- an unenviable choice between action and inaction. Inaction will do nothing to counteract the spike in COVID cases happening locally, statewide and nationally and these numbers cannot be ignored. However, taking action could harm businesses and livelihoods and have other negative health outcomes. Faced with that dilemma some institutions made tough choices.

For example, Mid Coast Hospital released a well-crafted announcement on their Facebook page on January 7 about the stress additional COVID-19 testing is putting on their walk-in clinic, hospital and the emergency department. The announcement concerned patients who had taken at-home tests that were positive, but then came in for confirmation testing. The message essentially was “if you tested positive with an at-home test, but you’re having mild symptoms or none at all, please trust the test and isolate at home. Of course, if you feel worse than that come on in for treatment.” Now, typically a hospital would always welcome patients who have even a mild need, but they made the tough decision to ask people to save the beds for those who are truly ill and in need of immediate care.

Both the town of Brunswick and city of Bath have come out with mask mandates. The Brunswick mandate is for all indoor public spaces which begins January 12. The city of Bath, thus far, is requiring masks in city of Bath buildings only.

The businesses in Brunswick are required to hang a sign in their business instructing that masks must be worn (the town website has a flyer that businesses may print). The mask ordinance “requires all people entering public buildings in Brunswick to wear coverings over their noses and mouths. A public building is any building or portion of a building that’s regularly accessible to the general public.” Businesses are exempt if they require proof of vaccination upon entry.

A big key that the Town of Brunswick expressed is that businesses are not responsible for the enforcement this time. Businesses are responsible to hang the sign, but enforcement will be done by code enforcement or town officials (however, blatant disregard for the ordinance by a business can still be fined).

Did these institutions want to take these steps? No. I’m sure they would have preferred that we reach herd immunity, so this virus is a thing of the past. However, collectively as a community we couldn’t reach that goal, so they need to do the best they can to help prevent spread.

I’ve said this for over two years now, the best thing we can all do to help our businesses is get vaccinated, and the second-best thing is to mask and social distance. Viruses need hosts, and if enough people won’t get vaccinated then the next best thing is to cover the holes where the air droplets get released from and be sure we aren’t standing close enough to catch them.

Nobody likes to wear a mask. However, if we want to get past this virus, we need to do the things to stop the spread. Don’t get mad at the businesses for following the mandates, and don’t get mad at our elected leadership for creating the mandates to try and keep us safe and healthy. They’re trying to mandate us into caring for our neighbors, because we chose not to do that on our own. Let’s do this one thing together rather than fighting about it and maybe a year from now I won’t need to write a column about COVID-19 entering its fourth calendar year.

Cory King is the executive director of the Southern Midcoast Maine Chamber.

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