Omicron and the Fourth Phase of Pandemic Response

What’s changed?

At Poppy, we are working with our customers and partners to deliver the nascent and urgent capabilities of detecting pathogens in indoor spaces, as opposed to looking for them in everyone’s nose. Notably, we began this work prior to the first known cases of COVID.

1. COVID affects every country and every community differently

The re-emergence of a patchwork of inconsistent travel restrictions with Omicron makes clear that every nation has its own ground conditions.

CoVID-19 risk by county, August 2021 (source: NYT)
COVID Risk by county, December 2021 (source: NYT)

2. We aren’t fighting one disease

It’s not just that we knew less about COVID eighteen months ago, it’s that the virus has mutated several times and will continue to do so. Delta was first identified about a year into the pandemic, and accounted for 80% of new US coronavirus cases within 6 months.

3. The fallacy of binary outcomes

There is a persistent narrative that COVID’s infection-fatality rate is the key number to track, and that the vast majority of infections are inconsequential. But over time, science, industry, and individuals themselves have come to better understand the long-term consequences of the initial infection.

4. The tools have changed, and so has their adoption and efficacy

For roughly one year of the pandemic, all we had available were NPIs (Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions), asking individuals to mask themselves, wash their hands, maintain distance, engage in surface cleaning, and generally lock down.

New cases since December 2019. Notably, vaccines were first introduced in early 2021.

COVID has waves. Pandemic Response has Phases.

Omicron is producing a response that is now familiar. Regional policies around the world, and in our cities, will open and close borders, businesses, institutions. New vaccines will emerge, new treatments will emerge; so will new variants, and in all likelihood, new conditions altogether.

  • Phase One: Discovery, Shock, and Spread (Winter/Spring 2020). In a period of 17 days in March, New York City went from 2 cases to over 1000. Without testing, or a clear model of the pathology of the diseases, terrifying rates of hospitalization and fatality emerged.
  • Phase Two: Testing, Tracking, and Locking Down (Summer/Fall 2020). By June 1, the US was doing 1.4MM COVID tests per week. With a better model of the disease, CDC recommends masking and distance. Most in-person businesses that can shutter do so, either out of fear or local mandate.
  • Phase Three: Mitigating, Vaccinating, and Opening Up (Winter / Spring 2021) With most of the US in lockdown, US infections peaked in early January 2021 and fell from 300,000 to 60,000 per day, within a few weeks. At the same time, vaccines began to be deployed, from zero in early January, to over 3.5 million doses given in April. Cases fall to less than 10,000 per day, and many offices re-open, as well as restaurants, schools, cruise lines and live music venues.

Phase Four: Variants, Complexities, and Uncertainty

This optimism of Spring 2021 was celebrated, but short-lived. The emergence first of Delta, and now Omicron, cast an ominous shadow on the overall trends and outlook for our collective outcomes.

The last 30 days, globally, of new cases. The current 7-day average us up 28% from one month ago.

Phase Four Pandemic Response

Pandemic Response in Phase Four has new opportunities and demands, for collective and individual outcomes. It requires new tools, new strategies, and new frameworks.

The Poppy Bioaerosol Collection Device on the wall is monitoring the office space here to detect the environmental presence of COVID-19 (and 1000 other pathogens.) Photo © Poppy 2021.
This is one of Poppy’s air assessments in a complex set of spaces inside a cultural institution. With the complete data set, facilities managers were able to determine how to recalibrate HVAC and air circulation to make the site “infection-resistant.”

1. Passive, not demanding

In earlier phases, the pandemic interventions all require individuals to take individual action. Put on a mask, maintain distance, go get tested, isolate when unwell. These are sometimes difficult for some people to maintain and have become complex in many communities in the US, Europe and elsewhere. In some communities these efforts are mandates, in others, efforts to mandate them are prevented by state law.

They are led by communities, not by states.

In the United States, the first three phases of the pandemic were not met with a strong central federal response. For the most part, each state was left to form policies to protect its people. In many cases, it was also cities on their own. Even two years in, some cities remain at odds with some states over protective policies, with some states at odds with federal measures.

The Four Seasons Center for the Performing Arts asks all of its patrons to take the strongest precautions to protect themselves and one another. But beyond that, it also takes the deepest care of its community by making sure that the circulation of air is optimized to protect everyone from the spread of any pathogens, including COVID, but also far beyond it.

They are adaptive, not fixed.

What Phases 1–3 have taught us is that there are phases, and that there will be many more. This summer, the Lambda variant was devastating in Peru, but now it’s Omicron in every headline, when only emerged in scientific journals two weeks ago.

Building the Infection-Resistant Landscape

A few months into Phase Four, deployed at forty sites and scaling rapidly, we are watching, and helping, major companies and institutions adapt, prepared to remain open, alert, and responsive.

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