I had initially planned to treat omicron like a bad flu season. I would continue to wear masks in public, but I would eat at restaurants, see friends and family, and travel—things I had been doing since the worst of delta was over.
I know I’m lucky: No one I love has refused to get vaccinated, so avoiding being around unvaccinated people has been easy. Omicron is most acutely a threat to the estimated 66 million Americans who are completely naïve to the virus—that is, those who have not been vaccinated or infected, as well as those who have a medical condition that places them at higher risk. I am personally low-risk. I am healthy, and my two children are old enough to be vaccinated. My work as an emergency room doctor means that I’m around sick people, yes—and reasonably well protected from the virus by hospital protocols.
But as the variant spreads astonishingly quickly, I’ve had to recalibrate my initial reaction to be a bit more cautious. Here’s how I’m thinking about omicron personally and the risk it poses to hospitals like mine—and why I’m ultimately hopeful.
I am still confident that I will fare OK personally if I get the virus. Based on laboratory data from Pfizer and Moderna, and extrapolating from other variants, experts feel that the three-dose regimen likely confers protection against severe disease; one study from the U.K. suggests 80 percent efficacy against infection. Originally, two doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines provided 95 percent protection against infection. Another way to look at it is that this spring, vaccinated people were 20 times less likely than unvaccinated ones to get COVID-19. Today, vaccinated people with a booster may be up to five times less likely to get omicron. I imagine the chance I will get COVID at some point is quite high, even with those odds, given how infectious omicron seems to be. I don’t want my infection to be a burden on the system because I have to be replaced at work. While there’s no ideal time to get COVID (kind of like becoming a parent, but less joyful), now seems to be a particularly bad one for me, given the fears of hospital short-staffing nationwide.
I probably will continue to see friends and family indoors in the coming weeks, but I may avoid going to a bar with colleagues until the surge is over; if one of us infects the others, then we’ve knocked out a good chunk of our workforce in one swoop. I will be more careful at work, where I had definitely been letting my guard down (while still masking and hand sanitizing) over the last few months. I will still let my two vaccinated children go to school wearing masks, but I may avoid letting them have sleepovers until the omicron peak has passed. I understand why some vaccinated people want to go about their daily business and may choose to be less cautious than me. After two years of social distancing, lining up to get vaccinated, and doing their part to “flatten the curve,” they might feel it is time to ask: What is the endgame, really? Is it to attempt to avoid getting COVID forever? Or is it to accept that COVID is here to stay, and that we have to learn to live with it?
The answer is a little bit of both. The societal risk from omicron is quite high; hospitals could fill up, even with a small percentage of vulnerable people who will all get sick at once, and health systems will be more likely to be overwhelmed as staff call in sick. There may be a point to essential workers like me flattening our own infection curve to allow us to get through the omicron surge without serious staffing shortages.
This curve will hopefully be shorter than any prior waves, albeit higher. But I have to say, I just don’t think there is much we can do to prevent hospitals from being full of patients at this point, with a variant this infectious. (Vice President Kamala Harris said in an interview that “we didn’t see omicron coming,” but it should not have come as a surprise, after delta, that another variant could cause significant trouble.) It seems that the best thing the average citizen can do, when weighing personal needs for human connection against societal risk, is no longer to stay home or to social distance; it is to get vaccinated and get boosted and to try to convince their friends and family to do the same.
What I hope omicron will do is finally convince us all to stop waiting for the end of the pandemic and start learning to live with it in a rational way, using the tools we have at the collective level. Perhaps that will mean more cities will adopt vaccine requirements for indoor dining, or more people holding private events will require vaccination or testing. Perhaps politicians will stop rolling out travel restrictions in the face of new variants, given that they have been spectacularly unsuccessful in blocking the spread of this one. Perhaps omicron will make us each contemplate more seriously how to best reconcile with our new normal.
We still have a lot of work to do. If COVID is here to stay, we’ll want to figure out a way to ensure the vulnerable in this country, immunocompromised people who don’t mount a good immune response to the vaccine, have access to the therapies and preventatives that the Food and Drug Administration has approved. With pediatric hospitalizations rising, approving a vaccine for children under age 5 is becoming more urgent, as is vaccinating eligible children. We also should really be paying much more attention to global vaccination, not just because it’s the right thing to do from an altruistic standpoint, but because it will protect the whole world against the emergence of another variant.
But I’m betting on a near future, just a few months from now, in which COVID will be at best just an annoying cold and at worst the version of influenza we live with in most years these days. Yes, I might need to update my thinking once again. I’ve spent much of the pandemic wallowing in anxiety and horror. I’m ready to move on. We lost millions to this disease, but no amount of anxiety about the course it will take in the future will bring them back.