You're not doomed to get Omicron
This surge is probably a sprint, not the kind of marathon that's worn us all to shreds
There’s a ton we still don’t know about Omicron, but we’re starting to build a solid picture of what it looks like when it hits US and UK communities. I’m sending this without proofing it because it looks like we’re likely to lose power from today’s round of gale warnings, so please forgive any howlers.
First, a quick summary of where we are:
Despite a testing capacity crunch, the US recorded more than 4 million official cases in the past seven days. Our seven-day average is now more than double the peak of last winter’s massive surge. The UK recorded about 1.3 million cases over the same period.
In the UK, where vaccination rates are quite high, Omicron is about one third as likely to put people in the hospital than Delta. Emergency room visits are also reduced with Omicron, but more modestly. This matches up well with hospitalization data from South Africa. In the US, there are about 121k people hospitalized with covid, and that figure looks likely to keep rising toward last winter’s peak of about 140K people. We’re already over the summer’s Delta-driven hospitalization peak. Omicron isn’t putting nearly as high a proportion of people in the ICU as previous variants have, but the absolute numbers are still straining many hospitals. (If you’re in the US, you can look up your local and regional ICU situation here.)
Many people who are unvaccinated, elderly, immunocompromised, or otherwise vulnerable are getting really ill, and a lot of other people are getting sick enough that they need a couple of days on an IV under observation to pull through. Healthcare workers, who have put their physical and mental health on the line to fight back wave after wave of covid, are getting sick. The result isn’t something we like to talk about, but where the need for care overwhelms the pool of available caregivers, patients (and healthcare workers) suffer.
Each of us will have a different experience of the current surge based on where we live, what vulnerabilities and protections affect us, and how we think about risk. But even so, there are some hopeful signs that affect just about everyone.
Getting Omicron is not inevitable
It’s really easy to feel fatalistic about getting covid right now—I absolutely did at the beginning of the Omicron outbreak. But although the variant is super transmissible, it’s increasingly clear that we’re not all doomed to get it right now.
The data so far shows that Omicron outbreaks spike extremely quickly and then burn through and start subsiding. The risk of transmission is high during outbreak peaks, but people with boosters (and those with recently completed two-shot mRNA series) stand quite a good chance of avoiding Omicron infection, especially if they’re able to wear N95 or equivalent masks, maintain good ventilation, and cut out non-essential activities for a few weeks.
If you can do that for just a few weeks while Omicron blows through your area, your individual risk will start to decline. And at the same time, hospitals will start getting breathing room back, so if someone in your family does happen to get sick enough to need an IV or oxygen, they’ll be able to get it. (And I say this a lot, but if your area is experiencing an Omicron surge, this is a great time to drive carefully and postpone risky activities.)
At the same time, healthcare workers, first responders, teachers, and frontline workers of every other kind can cut their risk and still face overwhelming viral loads. Hundreds of thousands of kids too young to be vaccinated—or whose parents won’t allow them to be vaccinated—are going to be exposed. Many people with disabilities and chronic conditions that make them extra-vulnerable are going to get covid and need medical care. Some of these people are going to need hospital beds over the next month or so, and it’s on the rest of us to try to keep those beds open for them if we can.
This isn’t going to last forever
One of the most psychologically difficult parts of the pandemic’s first year was that even for those spared serious illness or deaths in the family, the lockdowns and school closures that we expected to be sprints turned out to be more like ultra-marathons combined with zombie attacks. Here is the good news: From everything we’ve seen in early outbreaks, Omicron is not that. Not in South Africa, not in London, and probably not in the US. As outbreaks light up throughout the US, our national numbers will probably rise for awhile yet, but national trends don’t really matter that much to our individual experiences, and we can hope to see cases to start dropping yet this month in early Omicron hotspots.
This matters a lot. Where schools are closing because too many teachers and staff are sick to run the school, we are not looking at month after month of zoom hell. Omicron seems to be the thing that we expected covid to be when it first arrived in North America and Europe—something we can get through if we buckle down and take care of each other for a few weeks while outbreaks spike and subside. And despite governmental blunders, vaccination rates keep rising, the testing crisis is eventually going to ease as supply rises to meet demand, and promising new therapeutics are on the way.
None of this is easy. We’ve all been through various kinds of collective and individual trauma for two years, and going back through things we believed were behind us feels awful. But there are lights ahead and a lot of people trying to take care of each other no matter where we are.