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A lot of the public may be “done” with COVID, but the virus is in no way finished with us.

So even as pandemic fatigue spreads far and wide, the people in charge do not have the same luxury. They have to stay focused on lessening COVID’s toll, in the next wave and any subsequent ones.

We don’t need to return to lockdowns and mask mandates, but there is still a lot our leaders can do.

First, they need to talk about where we are with COVID, and what that likely means for the next several months.

There’s a lot to be worried about. The omicron BA.5 subvariant has quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S., after following a similar path in Europe. It is proving elusive to the immunity conferred by vaccines or prior infection. The U.S. is officially recording about 100,000 cases a day, but the true number may be closer to 1 million.

The number of Americans hospitalized from COVID remains far below the mid-January peak.

Still, COVID is killing more than 300 Americans a day, and has been for months. That’s more than 120,000 deaths per year — more than twice the deaths from flu and pneumonia, and good for the seventh-highest cause of death in the U.S. Even among those who are vaccinated, more die every day than are killed in car accidents.

And don’t forget about the hundreds of thousands who may be getting sick every day. Most will miss some work, making worse the shortages we already all feel, and some will be very sick for some time. A disturbing number will develop long COVID and never quite return to how they were before.

Even now, COVID is a threat like few others.

And those numbers are not likely to stay that low. A wave appears to be building, starting in the South and West.

It could hit us hard. In places like Portugal, where vaccination rates are higher than here, BA.5 set off a spike of cases that pushed hospitalizations near their previous peak.

Now, it’s hitting here. Hospitalizations are already up 18 percent nationwide in the last two weeks. A disruptive fall and winter surge that fills hospitals and plays havoc with the economy is not out of the question.

Officials need to be upfront about the risk. A lot of people will tune them out, but leaders should focus on those who are searching for clear direction on how to protect themselves. They should be clear that going out in public is getting riskier, and that masks, distancing and being outdoors still help mitigate those risks.

Officials also should keep promoting vaccines, and be clear about when to get boosters.

Finally, the federal government should go full steam ahead on the development of vaccines that can better handle the ever-evolving strains of COVID.

Moderna and Pfizer are both developing vaccines using both the original COVID strain and omicron. But they probably won’t be enough to inhibit transmission and provide immunity from future variants.

For that, we need a universal COVID vaccine. The science is complicated, but there are also bureaucratic, logistical and regulatory challenges.President Biden and Congress could wipe away those challenges, just as was done with Operation Warp Speed, which helped develop the first vaccines in record time.

Researchers are taking several approaches toward a universal vaccine. Nothing should get in their way. Every dollar spent will be worth it.Just as with the first vaccines, not everyone will take advantage of a universal shot.

But at least everyone who wants to protect themselves to the fullest will be able to.

That’s what we need from the government now: the knowledge and tools to protect ourselves as much as possible, and as much as we each choose to.

—The Portland Press Herald