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What you need to know about the omicron variant
Travelers queue at a check-in counter at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, on November 27, 2021, after several countries imposed new travel restrictions following the discovery of the omicron Covid-19 variant. | Phill Magakoe/AFP via Getty Images Omicron is the newest Covid-19 “variant of concern,” according to the World Health Organization. A new Covid-19 variant, now named the omicron variant, was detected in South Africa on Wednesday, prompting renewed concern about the pandemic, a major stock market drop, and the imposition of new international travel restrictions to stop the spread. Though the variant’s existence was first reported by South Africa, it has also been found inBelgium, Botswana,Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, and the United Kingdom, meaning the variant has already spread — though how far is unclear, as new cases continue cropping up around the world. While it will take scientists some weeks to understand the omicron variant, including how quickly it can spread and what the illness that results from infection looks like, the World Health Organization has already labeled omicron a “variant of concern,” meaning it could be more transmissible, more virulent, or more able to evade the protection granted by vaccines than the original strain of Covid-19. More information about the new variant is sure to emerge over the coming days and weeks, but here’s what experts are saying so far. What do we know about the new variant? Early evidence suggests that the omicron variant is highly contagious, possibly more so than the delta variant. With more than 30 mutations on the spike protein — the part of the virus that binds to a human cell, infecting it — omicron could both be more transmissible and have more mechanisms to evade immunity already conferred by vaccines or prior infection. So far, cases of the variant have appeared primarily in young people, leaving them exhausted and with body aches and soreness, according to Dr. Angelique Coetzee, head of the South African Medical Association. “We’re not talking about patients that might go straight to a hospital and be admitted,” she told the BBC. Relative to its pandemic peak, cases in South Africa are relatively low right now. However, the country has still seen a substantial spike in new infections: On Friday, South Africa reported new 2,828 Covid-19 cases, according to the Associated Press, with as many as 90 percent of those cases potentially caused by the omicron variant. Reinfection is also concern with the new variant, according to the journal Nature, but at this early stage, it’s difficult to tell how likely reinfection or breakthrough infections actually are. “The mutation profile gives us concern, but now we need to do the work to understand the significance of this variant and what it means for the response to the pandemic,” Dr. Richard Lessells, an infectious disease expert at University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, said at a South African health ministry press conference on Thursday. Whether the efficacy of treatments such as monoclonal antibodies — and new pill treatments from Pfizer and Merck — will be the same against the omicron variant is also unclear, as is the new variant’s virulence, or how sick it will make those infected, Dr. Leana Wen, a professor of public health at George Washington University, told CNN’s Jim Acosta on Friday. 3 key Qs about new #covid19 variants:1) Is it more contagious?2) Is it more virulent?3) Is there immune escape?Lots unanswered re Omicron, but the Biden admin had to act. Imagine the outcry if they did not institute a travel ban & this variant took hold in the US. @Acosta pic.twitter.com/EJvFQuhTR2— Leana Wen, M.D. (@DrLeanaWen) November 27, 2021 According to the WHO, the earliest known case of the omicron variant was November 9, and the mutation was first detected November 24 in South Africa, which has an advanced detection system. While the delta variant is still the dominant strain worldwide and accounts for for 99.9 percent of cases in the US, the discovery of the omicron variant has coincided with a spike in South African cases — a 1,124 percent increase over the past two weeks, according to the New York Times. However, the variant has likely spread far more widely than South Africa, according to the US’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci. “When you have a virus that’s showing this degree of transmissibility & you’re having travel-related cases...it almost invariably is going to go all over,” NBC reporter Kaitlan Collins tweeted Saturday, quoting Fauci. Fauci says the Omicron variant hasn't been detected in US but he wouldn't be surprised if it's already here. "When you have a virus that's showing this degree of transmissibility & you're having travel-related cases...it almost invariably is going to go all over,” he tells NBC.— Kaitlan Collins (@kaitlancollins) November 27, 2021 What are governments doing to contain the new variant? On Friday, President Joe Biden announced new travel restrictions on eight southern African countries, which will take effect on Monday. Travel from Lesotho, South Africa, Eswatini, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, and Botswana will be restricted, though those restrictions won’t apply to US citizens or green card holders, among other groups. As Wen said on Friday, travel bans don’t necessarily do much overall to prevent the spread of the virus, but they can buy time for governments to learn more about diseases and variants and better protect their populations. “I’ve decided that we’re going to be cautious,” Biden told reporters on Friday. “But we don’t know a lot about the variant except that it is of great concern; it seems to spread rapidly.” Other nations — the UK, Singapore, Israel, France, and Germany — are also restricting travel from southern African nations in an effort to contain the new variant, despite criticism from the South African government. “This latest round of travel bans is akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker,” South Africa’s foreign ministry said in a Saturday statement. “Excellent science should be applauded and not punished.” As of Saturdaythe US has not imposed any new travel restrictions on the European or Asian nations where the omicron variant has appeared. In addition to imminent travel restrictions on a number of southern African nations, Biden urged vaccination and boosters for US citizens as a response to the new variant. To that end, Biden on Friday also called on wealthy countries with the capability to donate vaccines to do so to low- and middle-income countries, as well as to waive intellectual property rights on current vaccines and treatments so that poorer countries can produce generic versions. Accessibility isn’t the only issue when it comes to a global vaccination campaign, however. Vaccine hesitancy has proven to be a global problem, including in South Africa, where last week the government asked drug companies to delay delivery of new vaccine doses in response to declining demand, despite only 35 percent of its adult population being inoculated. Europe is presently struggling with a new outbreak at least partly due to its this uneven vaccine uptake and vaccine resistance. How concerned should I be? Omicron is likely already in the US, given the loosened restrictions on international travel earlier in the month and the fact that the variant dates at least as far back as November 9. And even if it’s not yet, it soon will be, experts say. “It’s not going to be possible to keep this infection out of the country,” Fauci told the New York Times. “The question is: Can you slow it down?” While there are still many unknowns about the omicron variant, experts agree that it’s a troubling development in the Covid-19 pandemic. “We’ve seen variants come and go, and every month or two we hear about one,” Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, told PBS on Friday. “This one is concerning. This one is different. There are a lot of features here that have me and many of us concerned about this.” What do we know at this point about the omicron variant of the coronavirus?@ashishkjha joins @WmBrangham to provide information and perspective. https://t.co/6SA50U5NPl pic.twitter.com/ToWzGWhkfH— PBS NewsHour (@NewsHour) November 26, 2021 Delta, the current dominant strain of the virus, shows heightened transmissibility and an ability to evade antibodies, as Vox’s Umair Irfan explained in June. But as with delta, the key to limiting omicron’s spread depends upon human behavior and people’s willingness to engage with proven public health responses. Stopping the spread also means stopping the possibility of harmful mutations to the virus. Mutations — changes to the makeup of the virus — are bound to happen, and many of them are harmless to people. The more opportunities the virus has to spread, however, the more chance it has to mutate into a variation that spreads faster, is more resistant to antibodies and treatments, or creates worse health outcomes — or even all of these negative traits. Existing tools, however, should still be effective in stopping omicron— PCR tests appear to detect the variant, according to the WHO, and Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, told NPR on Friday that “there is no data at the present time to indicate that the current vaccines would not work [against omicron].” Additionally, masking and social distancing both are proven strategies to stop the spread of Covid-19, as are getting vaccinated and getting a booster shot. Those steps are especially crucial as the holiday season and cold weather bring people together indoors, where transmission occurs. According to the New York Times’ Covid-19 tracker, cases in the US have increased 10 percent over the past two weeks, with a daily average of 87,195 new cases, 52,279 hospitalizations, and 1,013 deaths. As of November 24, almost 75 percent of vaccine-eligible Americans have received at least one vaccine dose.
vox.com
One Good Thing: How fashion became a part of The Nanny’s legacy
Fran Fine’s fashion-forward flair is the perfect gateway to a greater appreciation of the iconic ‘90s comedy television series. | CBS via Getty Images Fran Fine has remained a style icon for a generation of kids born during (and after) the years that the series aired. The often-used meme, “I watched it for the plot,” is an irony-laden acknowledgment that we, as viewers, often gravitate toward eye candy. Most people prefer to watch flashy productions and beautiful celebrities over “highbrow” content; they have a knack for avoiding convoluted plot lines that force the viewer to think. This is not an incrimination but a very real aspect of our media consumption. Even Netflix’s official social media accounts have leaned into the joke to promote shows like Squid Game. “The plot,” then, becomes a teasing reference to its attractive cast instead of to the show’s unsubtle statement on social class in South Korea. Similarly, my interest in The Nanny, a CBS sitcom that aired from 1993 to 1999, stemmed from its superficial, plotless elements — or so I thought. I began streaming the show not for its comedic charm but the extravagant and colorful designer costumes worn by its main character, Fran Fine, the titular nanny (played by Fran Drescher). That isn’t to say The Nanny is all style with no substance. Instead, Fran’s fashion-forward flair was the gateway to my greater appreciation of the series and its tendency for excess through its comedy and aesthetics. The Nanny, both the show and the character, excelled at endearingly doing the most: Yiddish references pepper Fran’s vocabulary; she manages to be brash and self-deprecatingly honest, sweet but not cloying; and her clothes are ridiculously ostentatious for nanny-ing around the house. Fran’s costumes, engineered by stylist Brenda Cooper (who won an Emmy for her work), were the stylistic vehicle to distinguish her vivacious character from the rest of the well-rounded cast. The Nanny’s catchy, show-tune-like theme song even sets the audience up for this distinction. Fran is described as “the lady in red while everybody else is wearing tan.” View this post on Instagram A post shared by Fran Fine Fashion (@whatfranwore) To recap, The Nanny follows Fran Fine, a Jewish lady from Flushing, Queens, who, after losing her job at a bridal shop, accidentally lands a job as the nanny for the high-society, WASP-y Sheffield family. Her over-the-top persona (and nasally intonation) was initially bewildering to Maxwell, the widowed single dad of the family, but became endearing as he realized how smoothly his three children had taken to Fran’s antics. She moves in with the Sheffields and their snarky live-in butler Niles, and she playfully contends with Maxwell’s clingy and haughty business partner, C.C. Babcock. From the start of the show’s run to its sixth season finale, Fran remains its centrifugal force; her bubbly charm blew fresh air into the stuffy lives of the Sheffields, who viewers grow to individually adore. But Drescher, the series’ creator, and Cooper weren’t so sure The Nanny would’ve established such a beloved and lasting legacy if not for Fran’s clothes. “Could you imagine if I dressed that show and dressed Fran like an average, everyday nanny?” Cooper told the HuffPost in 2018. “We wouldn’t be having a conversation right now.” Cooper, until her departure after season four, was famously given free rein by Drescher to dress Fran Fine however she wished. She crafted Fran’s costumes to be an extension of her personality while also serving as memorable timestamps for the show’s progression and class commentary. Fran famously carried a red Moschino heart-shaped purse on a (failed) date with a mobster in season one and wore a Moschino piano dress in a season four episode that featured an aspiring concert pianist who later lost any desire to play the instrument. Still, her character is a “shopaholic striver with a mountain of credit card debt,” observed Rachel Syme in the New Yorker, “a profligate clotheshorse who, the viewer assumes, cares more about materialist trends than timeless art.” Even after Fran’s induction into the Sheffield clan, her style remains singular, unswayed by the social expectations of the Upper East Side. In a 2020 interview with Vogue, Drescher described Fran’s style as “sexy, but definitely not trashy” and shared some of Cooper’s costuming decisions. The character wore a lot of Moschino, since the clothes had pizzazz and humor, according to Drescher. And in the scenes Fran shared with C.C., the goal was to depict the two women as “contrasting in every way, as people and in the way they dressed.” By today’s ’90s-obsessed standards, Fran’s looks are distinctly modern and timeless. CBS via Getty Images In the scenes Fran shared with C.C., Maxwell’s clingy and haughty business partner, the goal was to depict the two women as “contrasting in every way, as people and in the way they dressed.” Yet, The Nanny never achieved the level of widespread popularity and cultural cachet afforded to other ’90s shows, like Friends or Sex and the City. Female leads like Rachel Green and Carrie Bradshaw have remained style flashpoints for a generation of ’90s and 2000s kids born during the years their shows aired. The Nanny, on the other hand, became lauded and referenced by a much smaller audience (including Cardi B) in the decades after it went off the air. Various women’s and fashion publications have dedicated coverage to Fran’s unique fashion sensibilities in recent years, nearly two decades after the show ended (and before The Nanny was revived via streaming service). This interest was, in part, driven by the @whatfranwore Instagram account, which identifies Fran’s iconic wardrobe to over 350,000 followers. The series’s arrival on HBO Max in April 2021, however, has likely introduced the show to more viewers. It is also a step toward memorializing its cultural status as a ’90s sitcom. To viewers in 2021, the show’s set-up — its punchlines and the way it was filmed — might feel a bit dated. Not so much that the humor was corny, but that it was simply of a different time. Some seasons of The Nanny were taped before a live audience, which has become “a class signifier of comedy itself,” according to NPR’s Linda Holmes on Pop Culture Happy Hour, “that somehow [a live audience laughing is] a less sophisticated or old-fashioned or more broad kind of comedy.” Still, the show boasted a list of enviable celebrity cameos during its run, featuring Elton John, Celine Dion, Elizabeth Taylor, Patti LaBelle, and of course, Donald Trump. The Nanny “finds jokes everywhere, sometimes three or four to a line, and links them across episodes and plotlines,” wrote Hilarie Ashton for the New York Times. Its self-aware, slapstick humor is refreshing and explicit for a decades-old show, and it generally holds up as a breezy ’90s sitcom to stream. The Nanny’s embrace of excess, however, had the potential to be wholly liberating and ahead of its time, but the show’s writers (and likely Drescher herself) drew the line at fatness. Instead, oversized bodies are to be feared or laughed at, and at one point in the series, Drescher dons a fat suit. In spite of this, Drescher’s charisma and comedic talent cement Fran Fine’s place in the television canon, as a lead who manages to subvert and reinforce stereotypes — about women, Jewishness, and class. The Nanny is a worthwhile watch for the cast’s physical humor, charm, and laugh-out-loud antics. But if you don’t find yourself convinced by these plot asides, do consider watching it solely for the clothes. The Nanny is streaming on HBO Max. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.
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vox.com
Prices for food and gas are rising sharply. Is health care next?
iStock/Getty Images Health insurance premiums could spike in 2022, experts warn. Inflation is on the rise, driving up the price of gas and food. One sector of the US economy is behaving particularly strangely: For once, medical prices have been increasing at a significantly lower rate than prices in the overall economy. In October 2021, according to the nonprofit health care analysis group Altarum, prices for health care services rose at a 2 percent rate year-over-year, compared to a 6.2 percent rate for all consumer products. But a sharp rise in medical prices could still be around the corner, experts say, delayed only because of unique features of the health care industry. Over the last 30 years, consumer prices have almost never risen faster than medical inflation, which measures the change in the prices paid for medical services, everything from doctor’s visits to surgeries to prescription drugs. If anything, the opposite has been true, particularly during economic downturns; after the 2008 financial crisis, for example, overall inflation slowed down to almost nothing but medical prices continued to grow at a 2 to 3 percent rate. In fact, since 2010, prices in the overall economy and in health care have moved more or less in tandem — until the spring of 2020. Altarum But while that may make it sound as though the health care sector is enjoying a welcome respite from the general inflation creating so much nervousness among businesses and political leaders, the reality appears less reassuring. This comparatively slow growth in medical prices could be a mirage. And if health care inflation does eventually catch up with the broader economy, patients would largely be the ones paying for it. Why medical inflation could accelerate soon The same problems driving up prices in the rest of the economy — rising costs within the supply chain, difficulty finding workers for open jobs — are issues in the health care sector too. The workforce crisis in particular is acute and not likely to go away any time soon, given how many nurses and doctors have left their jobs during the pandemic. A recent survey from the Chartis Group found that 99 percent of rural hospitals said they were experiencing a staffing shortage; 96 percent of them said they were having the most difficulty finding nurses. That has forced hospitals to increase their pay and benefits or hire temporary help from travel nursing companies that are more expensive — sometimes much more expensive — than regular full-time staff. The costs for purchasing personal protective equipment and other supplies have also been elevated because of Covid. Hospitals are going to want to make up for those higher costs by bringing in more money. While the numbers of patients they served fell sharply in March and April of 2020, patient numbers are already back near their pre-pandemic levels. There are only so many ways to increase how many services they provide, especially amid a staffing crisis. The other option is trying to charge health insurers more money for procedures and treatment, particularly the private insurers that directly negotiate prices with health care providers. So while it might be a while before higher prices hit patients, they likely will — just on a time delay. For medical services in particular, there is a lag between when the inflationary pressures like rising supply costs or labor shortages first appear and when they are actually felt in health care prices. In the rest of the economy, inflation and increased costs ripple through the market pretty quickly. If the cost of beef goes up today, the restaurant can raise the price of hamburgers tomorrow. If they can’t find fry cooks and need to increase wages to attract new workers, the restaurant can immediately charge more money for fries. But the prices for health care services are set in advance, written into binding contracts after negotiations between insurers and providers or after the government issues new regulations for public programs like Medicare. And those prices are generally set for an entire year, until another round of negotiations establishes new prices for the next year. Altarum’s inflation experts told me the negotiations for 2022 plans will determine how much the current inflation crisis ends up affecting medical prices. These inflation-driving trends, like the rising workforce costs, have only accelerated throughout 2021. For the last decade, health care prices have consistently grown at roughly a rate of 1 percent to 2 percent. Already, in the last 18 months, prices for hospital and physician prices have exceeded a 3 percent inflation rate. Altarum’s experts say they are watching whether health care prices eventually increase at the same 5 percent to 7 percent rate currently being seen in the rest of the economy — which would be the fastest rate since 1993. Such historic medical inflation would ultimately end up raising costs to patients in two distinct ways. First, if providers negotiate higher payments from insurers to make up for their increasing costs, the insurer will turn around and increase premiums for its customers. But patients also feel the rising costs more directly because they are being asked to pay more money out of pocket for their health care. Deductibles and other cost-sharing have been steadily rising for the 180 million Americans enrolled in commercial health plans. At the same time, the number of Americans considered underinsured — meaning they do carry insurance but the insurance would not necessarily provide them adequate financial protection if they had a medical emergency — has been growing. So if medical prices end up increasing at a historic rate, consumers are going to feel it both when they pay their premium and when they pick up their prescription: They’ll end up getting squeezed from both sides.
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vox.com