Omicron and Us—What’s Coming

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I am not a microbiologist, epidemiologist, or anything related. But I can read. And so I know that very credible, informed, sensible people are saying the number of cases of Covid-Omicron is currently doubling every three days. This, they report, is because you can contract Omicron in very brief time across empty spaces. Okay, but such reports don’t say what doubling every three days implies. If the claim is correct, and the numbers do seem to indicate that it currently is, then one reading is that as we go forward, new infections will keep doubling every three days so that just in the U.S., with cases now at about a million a day, cases will reach around 500 million a day by early February. No lie. Exponential growth is very serious business.

But that reading would be wrong. And it isn’t just that the total population isn’t 500 million so the whole thing would have halted at least six days earlier. No, much before that, even if the number infected per day is currently doubling every three days, it would not keep doubling at that rate. We know this because if it doubles every three days now, as new days pass the available uninfected souls to be newly infected drastically declines. Nonetheless, if it is every three days now, a reasonable assessment is that Omicron is so infectious that everyone who is going to get infected this round will get infected in a few months. Springtime, and many many millions more will have had it.

The above is at most roughly right, but if current reports of the pace of this spread are correct, it isn’t overwhelmingly wrong. There is reasonable confusion, however, about how many people will finally be infected. Will the Omicron surge continue until “herd immunity” halts it? Or will the Omicron surge subside earlier as appears to have (as yet inexplicably) occurred in South Africa where Omicron first escalated? In either case, what would three, six, or eight weeks of rapid spread actually mean? What might we expect to experience between now and April?

This prognosis would mean hospitals will be at least incredibly overburdened and perhaps go through hell. Not only the number of people needing help will cause that, but also major staff fatigue and illness. Yes, the hospitalization rate from Covid-Omicron, particularly for the vaccinated, seems seriously lower than for Delta, but a smaller hospitalized fraction of a larger number who become newly infected is still a whole lot of simultaneous hospitalizations.

Similarly, I think a few weeks or months of Omicron’s extreme contagiousness will mean many institutions will have large numbers of simultaneously ill employees. We have already seen Omicron down air flights for want of staff. It is now closing stores. It will soon undoubtedly affect trucking, manufacture, and more. If newly infected workers continue to work, the total number who get sick by the end of this period will rise. If newly infected workers don’t work, the economy will be seriously disrupted. Indeed, it is a fair guess that the CDC’s recent fiddling about with quarantine norms is not only or perhaps even mainly a matter of caving in to profit-seeking corporate lobbyists, but is instead due to worries about provision of utilities, food, etc.

In any event, looking forward to April, having gotten through January, February, and March with whatever losses we endure, I suspect three primary questions will be forefront.

First, with huge numbers having gotten sick, many asymptomatically, how many people, will suffer long-term effects? The question arises not only for bodily symptoms, but also psychological symptoms, particularly for health workers and young people.

Second, with perhaps a “herd” percentage having gotten sick, how susceptible will the once-ill be to getting sick again? Does the fact that Omicron sickens vaccinated folks, albeit on average much much less severely than unvaccinated folks, mean that having had the disease won’t preclude getting it again? Hopefully Omicron conveys considerable immunity of a different sort than vaccines convey, so that herd immunity can occur.

The above explains the sort of cautious optimism some are suggesting. That is, because Omicron is much less deadly but much more contagious, we could relatively quickly reach herd immunity. We will suffer intense but hopefully mercifully short-term horror in hospitals and related losses due to health care limits, and we will suffer potentially serious but again hopefully short term economic disruptions, but finally Covid will become a flu-like problem, and perhaps even less than flu-like. That final result for Covid is a possible, hopeful scenario for the other side of dauntingly deadly upcoming losses. Neither rose-colored or apocalyptic views are going to prepare people to cope well.

But and there is a “But” beyond the issue of just how bad the impending deaths of unvaccinated, hospital crisis, and more widespread sickouts will be. Where and when do mutations occur in the sickness cycle of each individual? About this last, we have already seen Covid mutate to become incredibly more contagious—and luckily, also simultaneously way less lethal. If we continue to experience on-going replication errors, called mutations, in the sick bodies of people who remain unprotected, what happens when a mutation retains the hyper contagious attribute of Omicron but also intensifies in its lethality and requires a new vaccine?

The answer is not hard to figure out. And so doesn’t it follow that preventing the continuous generation of new mutations is an essential step to avoid absolute calamity? And doesn’t that mean the current profit-seeking practice of big pharma and corporate compliant government that together obstruct vaccinating the whole planet and prevent developing world-wide infrastructure to do so again and again for any new pathogen that develops, is not only homicide for profit, but also globally suicidal? Doesn’t it mean all humanity needs free, quality, health care for all?

It turns out we need to “look up” not only regarding global warming and ecology, but regarding much else as well.

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