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As omicron variant continues to lead its way through cities, causing breakthrough infections in fully vaccinated and some reinfections in some who have already had it, it can start to feel as if everyone is getting sick.
If you’ve been spared a round of COVID-19 so far while others you know have tested positive, you may have wondered: Should I just expose myself and get it over with?
No, says Dr. Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“There are several issues with this mindset,” Beyrer told CNET. First, he said, although your risk of severe COVID-19 is now rare if you have been vaccinated and boosted, some vaccinated people have had severe cases of COVID-19. And if you are not vaccinated, that is the risk much higher. So why risk it on purpose?
Second, vaccinated people can still spread the virus, he said, putting others at risk who did not choose to be sick. Older adults, people with weakened immune systems or children under the age of 5 will be particularly vulnerable if, for example. encounter them in your apartment building while isolating yourself or in the grocery store before you discover you are sick.
Third, he says, there is a risk lang COVID, which develops in about 15% to 20% of people with a confirmed COVID-19 infection – including people who had relatively mild cases. These symptoms can range from bothersome to disabling and disruptive to everyday life.
Is it inevitable to catch the virus that is causing a global pandemic? With omicron variant, some experts have said, perhaps. But choosing to get sick just to get it over with has consequences beyond you, even if you never want to know.
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Getting sick together: Like a chicken pox party?
“Smallpox parties” or parents who deliberately exposed their children to chickenpox so they would get immunity young were big before there was a chickenpox vaccine, Beyrer said, adding that the generation that got chickenpox is now susceptible to shingles. But there is no room for that mentality when it comes to COVID-19.
“COVID is now a significantly preventable disease,” he said.
As a scenario, we suggested this to Beyrer: Five fully vaccinated young adults in their 20s, who feel they are generally healthy and are likely to have a mild case of COVID-19, decide to get COVID-19 together to be done with it. What could happen?
Although the odds are low for someone in this group who gets really sick, Beyrer said, one of them will, on average, develop long-term COVID. And for neighbors to the group isolating together, including people who are immunocompromised, older, or under 5 years of age, the cluster in the group can lead to serious illness.
“With a virus as contagious as omicron, these infections can spread widely,” Beyrer said. “And these five young people would probably never know who they could have hurt.”
Another thing to note is that COVID-19 is not a “one and done” disease for everyone, and many people are fighting it a second time after being ill earlier in the pandemic. As the Cleveland Clinic notes, natural immunity decreases over time, as does non-boosted vaccine immunity.
Just because omicron causes less serious illness does not mean it is not serious
Omicron leads to fewer admissions and deaths than delta, Beyrer said. But it is also far more contagious, causing the number of cases to skyrocket. And just because it causes less serious illness for the average person, does not mean it does for everyone.
“When you have so many millions of cases, the death toll will also rise,” Beyrer said. “As we [are] seen now in the United States. “
The need to “flatten the curve” for people who get sick with COVID-19 to maintain the hospital capacity for those who end up getting very sick is as strong now as it was in the spring of 2020.
“We’re already seeing the cost to the healthcare system and healthcare professionals,” Beyrer said. Hospital beds in 24 states were close to capacity, The New York Times reported Friday. But in addition to an increase in COVID-19 patients, more people are getting sick, more healthcare professionals are getting sick. When hospitals do not have enough staff to take care of patients, they have to “close a bed,” as the Wall Street Journal highlighted.
Will everyone eventually get COVID-19 anyway? When does COVID-19 become endemic?
Some health experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s Chief Medical Adviser, and Dr. Janet Woodcock, commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, made recent comments, saying that everyone basically will be exposed to or get sick with COVID-19. But they believe it will happen this winter when the virus is expected to peak again, or later COVID-19 becomes endemic and more like a seasonal illness?
“The reality is that the unvaccinated have a very high probability of becoming infected – in South Africa this was over 80% of all people who were vaccinated,” said Beyrer. The vaccinated (and some of the boosted) are also likely to have exposures due to the pure infectivity of the omicron variant, “but are much more likely to have either asymptomatic or mild infections, many of which will go unnoticed unless the person becomes tested for some reason. “
The World Health Organization has warned that 50% of Europe could be infected with omicron in the coming weeks, which some experts believe could signal the US’s path. But a high number of COVID-19 infections does not necessarily indicate the end of a pandemic, because in order for something to become endemic, the virus needs some predictability, Catherine Smallwood, a WHO officer, told The New York Times. And COVID-19 is anything but stable right now.
Many model builders predict that COVID-19 rates will begin to decline rapidly around the end of January, Beyrer said, and we can see much lower numbers of cases in March. But whether COVID-19 will cease to be a pandemic depends on a few factors, including whether vaccine and boost rates rise, a vaccine for children under 5 has been found, and omicron is the last variant of concern, he said.
“It assumes no other variants emerge as omicron is declining,” Beyrer said. “An assumption that turned out to be wrong with the delta variant, which we know is all too painful.”
Byer acknowledged the fatigue of experiencing a pandemic and the feeling that it will never end. But “We’re all tired,” he said. Actively trying to get sick now and believing that it will give you immunity later is harmful to the individual and harmful to society, he said, and it will also “maintain transmission chains and prolong the pain.”
Instead, people should focus on their mental health, Beyrer said. People should see family and friends “with as much care and security as they can.”
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