Our Covid-19 guidelines are convoluted, let’s learn from Austria

The United States reported a record 1,483,656 new cases of Covid-19 on Jan. 11. As the new Omicron variant continues to spread rapidly around the world, American leaders are once again scrambling for solutions to this exhausting health crisis.

Responses have varied nationwide. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot recently announced proof of vaccination requirements for certain indoor establishments. Meanwhile, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, still vehemently against vaccine mandates, is focusing on the distribution of test kits to Florida homes. We all want the pandemic to be over, but none of us seem to be on the same page to get there.

I had the pleasure of spending about a week in Vienna, Austria over winter break. There, I witnessed firsthand just how different some nations have been handling Covid-19 in comparison to the U.S.

Don’t get me wrong — Austria is a different and much smaller country than the United States. It, along with other countries in the European Union, is dealing with the same massive spike in Coronavirus cases that we are experiencing in America. But throughout my time there, I couldn’t help but notice just how convenient, consistent and logical Austria’s Covid-19 preventative measures seemed. After being in the United States for the entirety of the pandemic, navigating the restrictions in Austria was a breeze, comparatively.

First off, vaccine passports are a requirement in Austria. When entering restaurants, gyms, festivals and even shops, your digital vaccination records are checked at the door. Everybody there seemed to grasp the idea rather easily; the consistency of this policy made these checks quick and painless. The passport apps are astonishingly simple, and I never had to worry about carrying around my vaccine card, which is inconveniently too big to keep in a wallet. Whose idea was that?

Additionally, you aren’t considered fully vaccinated in Austria unless you have received your booster shot on top of your original vaccines. I witnessed a traveling couple be asked to leave a restaurant because they lacked a booster shot. Both parties were quite courteous throughout the ordeal; it was refreshing. The booster shot is merely recommended in the United States, unless you work certain jobs or attend certain universities, like DePaul, for example.

When it comes to masks, KN95 and N95s are the standard in Austria. In areas that require them, surgical and cloth masks are not accepted. DePaul immunology professor Phillip Funk explained that this is due to the tighter fit and better filtration of KN95 and N95 masks.

“N95s [and KN95s], they filter better,” Funk said. “They filter down to a smaller size and therefore catch more of the virus when breathing… The KN95s and the N95s fit in such a way that they don’t slide up and down, so you get that better fit and seal of your mouth and nose from the rest of the world.”

Despite evidence suggesting that these masks are more effective at limiting the spread of Covid-19, the CDC has not officially recommended N95s and KN95s for use over the traditional options as of yet, instead saying that Americans may “choose” to wear them for the best protection.

DePaul University announced on Thursday that students must either double mask with a cloth and surgical mask, or wear N95 or KN95s when returning to the classroom. In the rest of the city, the old masks are still sufficient to enter most establishments.

Frankly, it is exhausting having to keep up with all of this information. The halfhearted requirements and “suggestions” from the federal government have made traversing this pandemic far more confusing and convoluted than it has to be. I was only in Austria for 10 days, but I feel as if I know their Covid requirements better than our own.

Much of President Joe Biden’s platform was centered around taming the Covid crisis that was so mishandled under the Trump Administration. While our current president at least acknowledges the science behind the pandemic, that doesn’t mean much if he’s so hesitant to act on it.

“There was an opportunity to make a really strong bold move and say, ‘this is what we are going to do,’” Funk said of the administration’s Covid-19 response. “That didn’t get done, and I worry that was [due to] political reasons. I think it’s a symbol of the dividedness of the United States as a country right now.”

But it might not be that simple, says Nick Kachiroubas, professor at the School of Public Service at DePaul University. Kachiroubas cites the United States’ history of federalism as one cause of the government’s lackluster response to the pandemic.

“Public health issues have always been one of those things where the federal government can have guidelines,” Kachiroubas said. “But they’ve left it up to the states individually to determine how they want to govern.”

Kachiroubas explained that there is continued debate among public officials over the role of the federal government during this health crisis, but that it ultimately “lacks the precedents to step in” to the extent that federal leaders in nations like Austria can.

“The difference is, in the majority of countries in the EU, executive and legislative powers are combined in the same body,” Kachiroubas said. Essentially, the parliamentary styles of government in places like Germany and Austria allow for more sweeping legislation to pass at a federal level much more quickly than in the United States.

So am I arguing for a stronger federal government? Maybe I am. I don’t claim to have the answers; after all, Europe is struggling to contain Omicron even with stronger federal guidelines. But I’m tired of the confusion. I’m tired of the suggestions and different rules for different places. It’s certainly not the magic solution Covid-19, but at this point, I just crave the consistency I found in Austria.