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Data: NewsWhip, CDC; Chart: Baidi Wang/Axios

New data shows that the Omicron variant is not jumpstarting Americans' engagement in COVID news, despite indications that it may be one of the fastest-spreading variants to date.

Why it matters: News attention spiked early in the Delta wave, but Omicron is not yet having the same effect. A lack of widespread appreciation of the threat could hamper the response.

  • "My sense of things is that the lower levels of public engagement are due to pandemic fatigue setting in, and a perceived sense of this variant is probably no more dangerous than previous variants," said Chris Haynes, a political science professor at the University of New Haven.

Details: Social media interactions (likes, comments, shares) on news articles on COVID have declined dramatically during the course of the pandemic — from 1,171 per article in March 2020 down to 326 in December 2020, and then dropping to an average of 108 over the last three weeks, according to exclusive data from NewsWhip.

Between the lines: This doesn’t necessarily mean total interest in COVID news has gone down, but it has gone down on a per-article basis, meaning individual articles don't get as much attention as they used to.

Google searches about COVID have ticked up since Omicron arrived in the U.S., but are well below the August interest in the Delta variant so far.

The big picture: The urgency and novelty of COVID news in the early days of the pandemic has given way to fatigue as news readers grow used to the same cycles of coverage.

  • The arrival of the pandemic in early 2020 created a media frenzy unlike any other news story in modern history as consumers sought information about what the virus meant for daily life.
  • Since then, the COVID picture has vacillated between grim and promising as waves of cases, hospitalizations and deaths rise and fall.
  • Partisan debates — about lockdowns, mask mandates, vaccine mandates and alternative treatments — have become repetitive as they draw out.

"[T]hose who engaged in vigilant information seeking in the past may no longer feel the same need to do so," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

  • Vaccinated people "may have concluded that there is not much more they can do or need to learn," Jamieson said, while unvaccinated people "assume that infection is unworrisome or inevitable or that they have already survived infection or that they are invulnerable to it."

What to watch: As the Omicron variant spreads, interest in COVID news could start to spike in coming weeks, especially as it pertains to holiday travel.

Go deeper

Updated 5 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Concerns grow over CDC's isolation guidelines — Experts warn of more COVID-19 variants after Omicron — WHO recommends 2 new treatments — What "mild" really means when it comes to Omicron.
  2. Vaccines: America's vaccination drive runs out of gas— Puerto Rico expands booster shot requirements— Supreme Court blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for large employers.
  3. Politics: Vivek Murthy calls SCOTUS vaccine mandate block "a setback for public health" — Focus group says Biden weak on COVID response, strong on democracy.
  4. Economy: America's labor shortage is bigger than the pandemic— — CDC COVID guidance for cruise ships to be optional starting Saturday — The cost of testing.
  5. States: America struggles to keep schools open — Youngkin ends mandates for masks in schools and COVID vaccinations for state workers.
  6. World: Beijing reports first local Omicron case weeks before Winter Olympics — Teachers in France stage mass walkout over COVID protocols.
  7. Variant tracker
Updated 55 mins ago - Science

Volcanic eruption in Tonga caused "significant" damage

This satellite image of the eruption on Jan. 15 taken by Himawari-8, a Japanese weather satellite operated by Japan Meteorological Agency and released by National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT). Photo: NICT via AP

Significant damage has been reported in Tonga following an undersea volcanic eruption on Saturday, which covered the Pacific nation in ash and cut off communication lines.

Driving the news: The eruption triggered tsunami warnings across Tonga's islands and in other regions, including the West Coast of the U.S. and New Zealand.

North Korea launches 4th suspected missile test this month

A news broadcast in Seoul, South Korea, of an apparent North Korean missile test on Monday morning local time. Photo: Jung Yeon-je/AFP via Getty Images

North Korea's military fired "two suspected short-range ballistic missiles" eastward from Pyongyang on Monday morning local time, per South Korean and Japanese officials.

Why it matters: The fourth such launch since Jan. 5 comes days after North Korea's military warned of "stronger" action if the U.S. moved to have more sanctions imposed on the country.