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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / UTC students Katey Sutherland and Erin Wheatley wear masks as they enter the University Center on UTC's campus in mid-November. UTC, along with other public universities in Tenn., was forced to lift mask mandates for students after Gov. Bill Lee signed into law a package of bills designed to rein in public health measures that some government entities had put in place to control the spread of COVID-19.

How many ways can we say this? It's inevitable. Here we go again. Let's hope this time is easier, but let's not count on it. Yes, we're talking about COVID-19's new kid on the block — the omicron variant.

And it seems "here we go again" is spreading faster than before and even among those who've already had earlier forms of the virus and already received vaccines.

Meanwhile here in Chattanooga for the past three days including this one, we're the official epicenter of prep football for the entire state of Tennessee. The games — known as the BlueCross Bowl — have brought tens of thousands of high school football fans into the city and into Finley Stadium. With hardly a mask in sight.

Let's all cross our fingers for everyone's safety.

And not just from omicron. We and much of the rest of the U.S. still battle the delta version of the virus.

"Omicron is a spark that's on the horizon. Delta variant is the fire that's here today," said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the state Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Maine, where an unprecedented 334 people were in the hospital with COVID-19 as of midweek. (Just for a point of comparison, the Tennessee Department of Health on Thursday reported 862 Tennesseans hospitalized with COVID. But Maine has 1.3 million people and we have 6.9 million.)

Still, locally, after more than two months of steady improvement, seven-day averages of new COVID cases and hospitalizations in Hamilton County are up 11-12% from two weeks ago. At the same time, the amount of testing has declined and test positivity rate has increased to nearly 10%. A good rate is 5 or less.

Omicron, while not reported here yet, just adds another bleak stress.

Wire reports Friday morning indicated the omicron has already been found in at least six states in the U.S. — California, Colorado, New York, Minnesota, Hawaii and Nebraska.

How did it get there? The unwelcome omicron was detected in travelers who returned to California, Colorado and New York from South Africa, and in a Minnesota resident who visited New York City. Hawaii reported a case in a person with no recent travel. A Nebraska traveler returned from Nigeria, then tested positive and infected five members of his or her household.

It's only been nine days since omicron was identified on Nov. 25 by scientists in South Africa. Preliminary tests suggest it has been spreading rapidly there, but researchers still say they have yet to determine if it truly is more contagious than other variants. Hmmm.

Here are some other headlines:

— "Omicron coronavirus variant three times more likely to cause reinfection than delta, S. Africa study says"

It has "substantial ability to evade immunity from prior infection," the study found.

— "New coronavirus vaccine may eventually be needed for omicron variant, BioNTech CEO says"

He adds current vaccines should still provide protection against severe disease and current vaccines could be adapted "relatively quickly."

— "U.S. is in a 'better position' than last winter despite new variant, CDC director says"

Some of that "better position" comes with the Biden administration "pulling out all the stops" with a package announced Thursday in response to surging delta cases and the newly detected omicron. "All the stops" mimic some things put in place recently in Europe and elsewhere — including reimbursable at-home tests, something we think is a wonderful improvement over having to go to a pharmacy or elsewhere out in the now largely unmasked and only 51.5% locally vaccinated public to be tested.

Biden critics may whine that we should have been ahead, not behind, Europe and other countries with these "all the stops" measures. But Europe and other countries haven't politicized the virus as we have.

Americans — particularly Republicans and especially Tennessee and Georgia Republicans — have stoked polarization over masking, social distancing, vaccines and mandates — with Tennessee even mandating against the mandates.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia, and other wingnuts in the GOP even tried to shut down the government this week with an aim at forcing President Biden to sign a bill blocking his own COVID-19 vaccine mandates. The move failed as House and Senate lawmakers on Thursday approved a bill to fund the federal government until Feb. 18.

Here in Tennessee we have our own polarizers. Bill Lee's "opt-outs" for school masking was topped by the General Assembly's virtual ban on any sensible prevention, from vaccine requirements to mask mandates.

This week President Biden said the U.S. will fight COVID-19 and the new variant "not with shutdowns or lockdowns but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing, and more."

"If people are vaccinated and wear their masks, there's no need for the lockdowns," Biden said.

We hope so. But we also know there's no need for the polarization, and we urge Republicans to stop this madness. We need to fight the virus, not the preventions or each other.

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