Should you feel alarmed over the new and more infectious COVID-19 variant from the U.K. identified in the U.S. on Dec. 29?
The authorities claim there’s no cause for alarm, saying the vaccine will be highly effective against the new strain. Yet, they’re not addressing the threat of its higher infectiousness. Such complacency reflects our sleepwalking in the pandemic’s early stages, despite numerous warnings from risk management experts like myself and others.
The U.K. variant is 56% to 70% more transmittable than the current COVID-19 strain. This higher infectiousness resulted in a huge recent spike of U.K. cases. Despite no policy changes, its new daily case numbers doubled over two weeks from 240 on Dec. 10 to 506 on Dec. 24.
Experts say the new strain probably arrived in the U.S. by mid-November, with hundreds of cases by now likely. It grew predominant in the U.K. over two to three months. Based on this timeline, the variant will probably become predominant here by March or April.
In recent weeks, the U.S. daily case count has ranged just over 200,000. What will happen when this starts shooting up as the new variant starts to surpass the existing one?
Many health systems around the U.S. are already overwhelmed, and the post-Christmas bump will make things even worse. The devastating New York City March outbreak will be nothing compared to what we’ll face in spring and early summer.
Is this inevitable? No, but it’s very likely.
You might be thinking that vaccines will help: after all, that’s what authorities have been highlighting. Unfortunately, vaccines will be of little help by April, due to the slow timing of the rollout.
Perhaps the government can institute effective lockdowns? Don’t hold your breath.
Lockdowns have caused extreme politicization, widespread protests and severe economic pain. That makes governors highly unlikely to impose severe lockdowns, which would be necessary to defeat the new strain, until it’s way too late. Even then, mass public noncompliance as we’ve seen in California recently will drastically undermine the effectiveness of lockdowns.
Why do we ignore this threat? It’s because we fall into mental blindspots that scientists and risk management experts term cognitive biases.
For example, the normalcy bias leads us to feel that our current situation will always predict our future: the future will be normal. We fail to address the possibility of major deviations, like the pandemic itself or this new more infectious strain.
We tend to prioritize the short term, a cognitive bias called hyperbolic discounting. This blindspot leads us to undercount longer-term outcomes, such as the higher infectiousness of the new strain.
Another challenge stems from the stress of holding two contradictory ideas. It’s good news that the vaccines will work against the new strain, but bad news that the strain is more infectious. Such opposing perspective cause cognitive dissonance, and it’s natural for our brains to let go of the negative information and focus on the positive.
So how can you prepare for the new strains?
Get ready for mass supply chain disturbances by stocking up on consumables. Prepare yourself for lack of access to emergency health care by decreasing dangerous activities such as travel or significant household repairs. Enter into stringent pandemic lockdown for yourself and your household till you all get vaccines.
Insist on working remotely to the extent you can, or try to transition now into a job where you can do so by mid-spring. Communicate to your family and friends about this threat and motivate them to take steps to protect themselves. Prepare emotionally for the tragic consequences of our emergency health systems breaking down. To the extent you’re in a leadership role, get your organization prepared for this major disruptor.
We’re facing a truly dark spring and early summer. It may feel unbelievable, but it’s just our cognitive biases telling us that, just like they did early in the pandemic. Don’t be caught off guard — again — by ignoring this warning.
• Gleb Tsipursky is a behavioral scientist, CEO of the consulting and training firm Disaster Avoidance Experts, and author of “Resilience: Adapt and Plan for the New Abnormal of the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic.”