The Omicron Non-Emergency

Vaccine mandates are hurting hospitals, as a judge blocks Biden’s on healthcare workers.

Markets rebounded Monday following their Friday freak-out over the Omicron variant of Covid-19. President Biden also seems to be calming down, though other politicians continue to impose restrictions and mandates that will do more harm than good.

Speaking at the White House on Monday, Mr. Biden said Omicron is a cause for concern but not panic. He stressed the need for vaccinations and booster shots, but he said new lockdowns aren’t being considered. That’s a relief after his rush to block air travel from several countries in southern Africa on Friday.

The World Health Organization escalated its rhetoric, warning Monday that the new variant poses “a very high risk.” But there’s little we know about the variant beyond that it has a large number of mutations in its spike protein, some of which have been linked to increased transmissibility and could make vaccine antibodies less effective. But mutations may also be making the variant less virulent.

South African doctors say Omicron cases they’ve seen are milder and cause different symptoms, notably fatigue. Many are young people who might be expected to have milder symptoms. But breakthrough infections have also been mild. “I don’t think it will blow over but I think it will be a mild disease hopefully,” said South African Medical Association chair Angelique Coetzee. “For now we are confident we can handle it.”

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said Sunday the country won’t impose a lockdown or increase restrictions. “When we encountered previous waves of infection, vaccines were not widely available and far fewer people were vaccinated,” he noted. “We also know that the coronavirus will be with us for the long term. We must therefore find ways of managing the pandemic while limiting disruptions to the economy and ensuring continuity.”

He’s right. Yet some European countries are again flirting with lockdowns because they worry their socialized health systems could get overwhelmed. Many struggle during bad flu seasons, but there’s no reason to reimpose restrictions in the U.S.

U.S. government survey data indicate 92% of adults had Covid antibodies as of September from vaccines or prior infection. It’s possible Omicron could fuel a surge in cases this winter, but many fewer people are likely to get severely ill than in past waves. Evidence also indicates that boosters increase protection against variants.

One politician who hasn’t got the message is New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, who invoked Omicron to declare a disaster emergency that will let the state suspend elective procedures at hospitals if their staffed-bed capacity falls below 10%. But the real cause of the “disaster” is her mandate requiring that healthcare workers be vaccinated.

Ms. Hochul has refused to allow even religious exemptions to her mandate. In September she issued an executive order that would allow the National Guard to fill staffing shortages at hospitals and nursing homes if needed. By mid-October, the state reported that 4,100 unvaccinated workers were put on furlough or unpaid leave, 3,100 had been fired and another 1,300 quit or retired. 

Many hospitals, especially in upstate rural areas, were already short of staff. Now those that are stretched will have to postpone elective procedures, which are a crucial source of hospital revenue. Reprising Andrew Cuomo, Ms. Hochul is defending her destructive vaccine mandate while compensating for its unintended harm with another destructive policy. 

Meanwhile, a federal judge on Monday halted the Biden Administration’s vaccine mandate for health workers at hospitals that receive federal funding. The ruling applies to 10 states that sued to block the Nov. 5 rule. 

“The scale falls clearly in favor of healthcare facilities operating with some unvaccinated employees, staff, trainees, students, volunteers and contractors, rather than the swift, irremediable impact of requiring healthcare facilities to choose between two undesirable choices—providing substandard care or providing no healthcare at all,” wrote Judge Matthew Schelp.

Lockdowns don’t stop the virus, and vaccine mandates are hurting hospitals. The Omicron variant is no excuse for more of either one.