Medical Examiner

You Don’t Have to Worry About Omicron Yet

You might not have to worry about it at all!

Fauci speaks at a podium with Biden and Harris behind him
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris listen as Dr. Anthony Fauci speaks about the omicron variant at the White House on Monday. Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Are you worried about omicron, the strain of the novel coronavirus that the World Health Organization elevated to a variant of concern late last week as many Americans were lounging on couches? Don’t be.

If you can’t get fully behind that idea, at least try this on: Don’t be worried yet. Yes, you might have to worry about omicron at some point, or at least factor it into your plans. But you also might not have to worry about omicron at all. You might not have to factor it into your plans. You might never have to consider what life is like “because omicron,” the way we had to alter our lives because of delta, and because of the original coronavirus that became a pandemic.

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The latter scenario might feel hardly possible, after a long weekend in which news sites, lightly staffed for the holiday weekend (including this one), pumped out dispatches about the new version of the virus, which was first detected by scientists in South Africa. Anthony Fauci was in meetings! In response to news of this strain, real material consequences happened right under our noses. The stock market tumbled. There were travel bans.

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What’s worth remembering is that those real material consequences were not because of the new version of the virus itself, about which we do not yet know very much at all—they were anticipatory. They were, for all intents and purposes, a panic response. The travel restrictions aren’t scientific; they are reactionary. Even if omicron turns out to cause worse disease than its predecessor, those bans would already not be very useful.

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Is it a problem that in 2021 in America, the nation’s leading infectious disease doctor being in big meetings, perhaps even with the president, is news? I think it is basically equivalent to the way that a celebrity hinting at running for office is news in a primary season; spinning out possible futures is a time-tested way to fill column inches, but it won’t tell you whom to vote for. Similarly, I’m not trying to argue that no one should be thinking about omicron. Fauci should be. Researchers should be. Public health folks should be. The beating refrain of this weekend’s coverage, alongside the this could get bad, was we don’t know anything much yet. Obviously it is someone’s job to figure the next steps out—those are the people who should be worried, or perhaps more precisely, concerned.

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But the rest of us, I think, can set a calendar alert for a couple of weeks from now, and check in again then. That timeline is from a White House update, and I think it is also all you need to know:

Dr. Fauci informed the President that while it will take approximately two more weeks to have more definitive information on the transmissibility, severity, and other characteristics of the variant, he continues to believe that existing vaccines are likely to provide a degree of protection against severe cases of COVID. … The COVID Response Team’s immediate recommendation to all vaccinated adults is to get a booster shot as soon as possible. … Importantly, those adults and children who are not yet fully vaccinated should get vaccinated immediately.

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In the meantime, we should take a deep breath. That’s hard, I get it! We are in a pandemic in which our leaders have repeatedly failed to enact basic measures of preparedness, a pandemic in which vulnerable people are still dying. It would be nice if we could know exactly what to do next to make things better. But because we are still in a pandemic, we are also still at the mercy of weird policy decisions and frustrating spikes in cases and potential tragedy no matter what we individually do right now.

We are going to keep seeing omicron in the headlines. Pay attention to them if you must, but the more reasonable thing to do is just consider what precautions you might need to take heading into another COVID winter (the boring familiar stuff: rapid tests, flexible plans). The concrete concern right now isn’t really omicron per se; it’s still just SARS-CoV-2 itself.

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