For nearly two years, people have been wondering when the pandemic would be over and everything could go back to normal.

With the discovery of the omicron variant by scientists in South Africa, we may have gotten the answer, although it’s not the one that we were hoping for.

Every COVID infection creates the opportunity for mutation. Since the novel coronavirus virus was first identified, scientists have feared we could see a new variant that is more more transmissible and more deadly while being less responsive to treatments and vaccines.

Is omicron that variant? We don’t know, and we won’t know for a few weeks.

But if we wait for the verdict before we react, the new virus will have had time to spread around the world. Taking prudent steps now is the best way to keep the new variant from taking hold before it’s better understood.

And that may be what going back to normal looks like. Until the virus is suppressed in every corner of the world, we are always going to be at risk of catching the disease that has already killed more than 5 million people worldwide, including 770,000 in the United States.

Fortunately, we know from experience what to do about it.

Access to vaccines is an enormous advantage that we didn’t have this time last year. Being fully vaccinated makes you less likely to get infected and spread it to others. Booster shots maintain immunity, even in the face of the more transmissible delta variant.

If omicron is the more contagious, more virulent strain that we fear, the best way to reduce its impact is to vaccinate as many people as possible.

That’s true not just for this country, where about 70 percent of the population has had at least one shot, but also for the whole world. More than 1 million people in Maine have had at least one COVID shot, but none of us is safe if a deadly new vaccine-resistant variant emerges on another continent.

The United States needs to keep working to vaccinate as many people as possible here, while leading the international effort to vaccinate people in other countries.

We also know what beside the vaccines slows the spread of the virus. Hand washing, staying home when you feel sick, wearing a mask and avoiding crowded spaces are not new innovations, but they work. While the virus is still circulating and hospitals are reaching capacity, these precautions make sense.

Until the world has been immunized and COVID is limited to small local outbreaks that can be isolated and controlled, we are at risk of more contagious and deadly variant sweeping the globe. That’s going to be the only “back to normal” we can expect for a while.


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