On March 18, 2020, it made print-edition news when a New York Times editor tested positive for a case of coronavirus. The World Health Organization had declared a pandemic a week before; across the country, Americans were being told to go into lockdown, but they still weren’t quite sure where this was going. Tim Herrera, the Times editor in question, wrote that he woke up with chills one morning and was plummeted into a maze of bureaucracy in which it took five days to get a COVID test and confirm that yes, he did have the virus. “The symptoms have been easy to deal with. The health care system has not,” the subhed of his piece read. It was around this time that getting COVID started to feel like a matter of when, not if. Even the experts were saying so. The trick was to delay it.
It’s been nearly two years since then. The New York City media class has collectively gone through the “wow I might get it” reckoning at least twice more as new strains of the virus circulated. It happened most recently in July, as delta spread and caused breakthrough infections in people who were fully vaccinated, shattering the illusion that if you were vaccinated, you were virus-proof.
That moment of realization happened again Wednesday. If you are in a certain pocket of Twitter, you definitely know what I’m talking about. A blind item ran in Gawker: “Which media company’s very large holiday party resulted in a rash of COVID diagnoses?” Our anxiety manifested into guessing games in Slacks and group chats.
Why does it feel like “everyone” is getting COVID right now? The simple answer is: because “everyone” is getting COVID right now. Cases are up in New York City, as omicron, a variant of the virus that spreads very fast and can dodge some of the protection offered by the vaccine, spreads. Many vaccinated people who were following strict pandemic rules early in 2021 are going to parties and to bars and to offices; even places that do have mask mandates require only fabric masks, which can help slow the spread but are not nearly as protective as a well-fitted N95s. Rapid tests are sold widely at stores, but stock is available in fits and starts, and besides, at $7–$12 daily testing—i.e., the method that could truly catch asymptomatic cases—seems out of reach for, well, most people. And so we are once again in a moment where cases are ballooning out of control, exposures having happened before anyone had enough information to advise shifts in behavior.
The feeling right now is a familiar one—it is the virus equivalent of creaking to the top of a roller coaster that is about to let loose on the way down. If, even as a vaxxed and boosted person, you are adjusting your behavior, that makes a lot of sense.
But in another sense, what is happening is not all that new. We are simply once again becoming conscious to a threat that has been real and meaningful and ongoing, killing a number of Americans that is extremely hard to process. By “we” I mean something specific—I mean the group of largely college educated and disproportionately white people who inhabit a certain corner of Twitter, the group whose positive COVID tests make the newspaper. Slate contributing writer Tim Requarth put his finger on this group earlier this week, in an essay about who gets to ignore COVID, and who, for that matter, gets to spin into full essay freakout when a test comes back positive following a weekend of much-considered revelry. The fact is that triple-vaxxed young people who have spent the pandemic able to easily (in the economic sense) isolate when they need to are not the people who are being killed by the virus—not by the hundreds of thousands, not in the mass national tragedy sense. “COVID doesn’t prey on the white managerial class in Manhattan or Michigan; it picks off racial and ethnic minorities, the working poor, the medically vulnerable, and the elderly, with prolific precision,” wrote Requarth.
Those of us who have time to follow every twist in the case counts and resources to adhere to every turn in recommendations might well be scared again, and dreading what certainly seems to be waiting for us, or may be already here. We are the ones who are reading the stories with titles like “America Is Not Ready for Omicron” (by the Atlantic’s Ed Yong) and “Omicron Is About to Overwhelm Us” (by New York magazine’s David Wallace-Wells), and worrying about what they will mean for us, personally. Somehow, it is still difficult to absorb the main lesson of the pandemic, one that is often explained beneath those scary headlines—the fear we are facing is at a public health level, much more so than an individual level. It is the public health level—that broad ecosystem that once encouraged us to all pitch in together to flatten the curve—that is still struggling.
The thing to remember is this: “We” are not the ones who have spent the pandemic coming down with COVID; we are, by and large, not the ones who have spent the pandemic feeling its worst effects. Neither will we be the ones affected most by the omicron wave, which is, at the scale of public health, very concerning. If you come down with COVID while fully vaxxed (which is, yes, now more likely), the vaccine will still do an awful lot to protect you. This shift is unsettling, and yes, it is newsworthy. Maybe you should shift your behavior now, depending on what your behavior was previously, what your risk tolerance is, and whom you interact with. But individual shifts in behavior can’t fix the real problem, which is systemic. As Yong put it in his latest, “the country needs to do what it has always needed to do—build systems and enact policies that protect the health of entire communities, especially the most vulnerable ones.” This latest wave of people with platforms sharing their positive tests is just one additional layer atop the real tragedies of the pandemic, which have been happening this whole time. At no point have these problems really been solved. It feels like “everyone” is getting COVID right now because we are paying attention.