With a scary-sounding new variant making the rounds, it's easy to panic.
But the reality, as usual, is complex. In fact, some initial research suggests that the Omicron variant, while much more transmissible, appears to be significantly milder even than Delta. Although the data is still incomplete, and more deaths will almost certainly emerge, as recently as December 4, the World Health Organization had yet to tally a single death from the variant.
That's in stark contrast to the general narrative: that overnight, Omicron went from a scary strain on the horizon to one that's knocking at our doors, scaring everyone shitless. We get it.
The very preliminary data that's available, though, appears to bolster what epidemiologists have been arguing for months now: that COVID is becoming endemic, like flus, colds, and other commonplace viruses. So why does it suddenly feel like the sky is falling?
Because of how media consumption habits have interacted with public perception of the pandemic, it feels like with each new variant leads to a knee-jerk reaction to emotionally revert back into spring 2020 mode. We're once again facing a cacophony of voices thrusting poorly contextualized information at us. And it all comes after 21 months under a constant strain of health terror.
Rationally, we know that even if Omicron does turn out to be deadlier than it seems right now, those of us who are both relatively healthy and also fully vaccinated and boosted are in way better shape, immunity-wise, than we were at the start of the pandemic.
Of course, that doesn't reduce the risk of transmitting this virulent strain to people who are immunocompromised or unvaccinated, who may end up needing hospitalization or worse. And, of course, COVID patients overwhelming hospital systems can have grim pile-on effects even for people who are sick with non-COVID ailments.
But if we've learned one thing from this saga so far, it's to take a deep breath, look at the data, and not to let ourselves panic. As anyone who's lived with anxiety knows, rationality is the first thing to go out the window when confronted with scary stimuli, and there are few things scarier than headline upon headline about a mysterious new variant.
The same advice goes for government institutions, by the way, which have consistently struggled to properly respond to changes in COVID's trajectory. It's not unlikely that this time around, they'll either overreact by closing borders or restricting travel, or underreact by doing nothing at all — and we should encourage our elected officials to take a data-driven public health approach as well.
If only we had an orb to ponder that could tell us whether Omicron is a serious threat or not. For now, all we have is knowledge from our collective experience that's telling us to calm down, go out less, try not to lose it if you're exposed or test positive, and wait for the science to firm up before doing anything drastic.
A roundup of helpful Omicron coverage:
Why Hospitalizations Are Now a Better Indicator of Covid’s Impact [The New York Times]
Don’t Be Surprised When You Get Omicron [The Atlantic]