With Omicron wreaking havoc across the U.S., it seems like everyone is going to get COVID eventually. Even scientists like Dr. Anthony Fauci have accepted this grim reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, saying “Omicron will find just about everybody.” But that doesn’t mean it’s time to hang up your mask and let your guard down just because you’ll probably get COVID at some point down the line. Because although Omicron is milder than previous COVID variants, relaxing your precautions right now is a serious gamble to your health, your family’s health, and your community’s health. This isn’t to say you’ll have to social distance forever, just that now is not the time to stop. Here are 8 critical reasons why.
Reason #1: Omicron Is Still a Deadly Virus
If you’ve gotten your COVID vaccines and a booster, you’re giving your body the best chance to prevent a severe infection. But the vaccines aren’t 100% effective. You can still get COVID and spread the virus to others. The more the coronavirus spreads from person to person, the more chances it has to mutate into a more infectious or deadlier variant. If the virus continues to thrive, Omicron — with more than double the number of mutations than Delta — could be just the beginning.
Reason #2: Hospitals Are Overwhelmed
Hospitals have been crushed by multiple COVID surges since March 2020. During the Delta wave, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study predicted that hospitals at 75% capacity would strain their resources, contributing to 12,000 additional deaths. At 100% capacity, they forecasted an additional 80,000 deaths in the following two weeks.
At the height of Omicron, hospitals admitted almost twice as many people for COVID infections than they did during Delta. As Omicron begins to die down, the CDC weekly tracker reported an 8.8% decrease in admissions compared to last week from January 12-18. However, even as Omicron declines, hospitals are still filling up. For Feb. 3, the average number of new daily cases was 356,256, according to the New York Times COVID Tracker.
Straining healthcare resources means delays in surgeries, screenings, and routine treatments for people with non-COVID conditions. Research suggests missed treatments and screenings are associated with more non-COVID-related deaths.
Reason #3: Long COVID Is a Real Risk
A fraction of people who recover from COVID have lingering symptoms or develop new ones that range from four weeks to potentially over a year. The number of long COVID cases worldwide is estimated at 43% among people who have been hospitalized, according to a pre-print study that has not yet been published. Another study, which included mostly people who had been hospitalized for COVID, found that more than half of people who have the disease had long COVID symptoms 6 months after recovery. But many people who have “mild” COVID also end up with long COVID.
Long COVID includes a wide range of symptoms, from trouble thinking or concentrating to continued loss of smell and taste. And it can truly be debilitating. In one study, a majority of long-haulers reported not being able to go back to work or needing to reduce their work hours for seven months. Although scientists have made some headway in understanding who’s at a higher risk, it seems that everyone is vulnerable to long COVID.
Reason #4: COVID Medications Aren’t Widely Available
Paxlovid and Molnupiravir are the two latest COVID treatments on the market. The Food and Drug Administration recently gave emergency use authorization to both antivirals for the treatment of mild to moderate COVID. Both stop the virus from spreading across the body and turning into a severe infection. The treatments are most effective when used within the first five days of symptom onset.
But the COVID drugs are in short supply, and doctors are prioritizing them for hospitalized patients in critical condition. As more people are hospitalized for COVID infection, it will take a while until there is enough supply for people to purchase Paxlovid or Molnupiravir at their local pharmacy. In other words, the chances of snagging a treatment and waiting out the infection are slim to none. If you put off getting COVID for another few months, you’ll have a better chance of getting your hands on medication.
Reason #5: Children Under 5 Aren’t Yet Eligible for Vaccination
Although kids are generally at low risk for severe COVID, some do get seriously ill. And besides, even a so-called “mild” infection is no fun (for them or the parent that has to take care of them) and can lead to long COVID or multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MISC-C), which causes inflammation in multiple organs, including the heart, lungs, and brain.
Because kids age 4 and under aren’t yet eligible for the COVID vaccine, they’re at increased risk of infection compared to vaccinated adults. High case numbers raise the risk of children getting exposed at school, forcing kids to quarantine and fall behind in classes. And if you get COVID, you could transmit it to the young kids in your life.
It’s not just infections that hurt children. Repeated school closures from high case numbers also take a toll on kids’ mental health. One study found that shutting schools down for COVID exposures increased symptoms of distress and anxiety in children.
Reason #6: Infection Won’t Give You Long-Term Protection
You might have heard the term “super immunity” thrown around in the news recently. Scientists have found that a fully vaccinated and boosted person who recovers from a breakthrough Omicron infection can have an amped up immune system that provides extra protection against COVID. A recent study found that hybrid immunity, or immunity gained from both vaccination and infection, can protect against multiple COVID variants. There’s also been research suggesting antibodies produced after an Omicron infection can neutralize the Delta variant.
Because Omicron is a more mild variant, you may be tempted to bite the bullet now in exchange for better immunity against new variants in the future. But super immunity may be temporary. One study (conducted before the rise of Omicron) found that hybrid immunity wanes over time, and the rate of reinfection increases after 6 months. So super immunity may not be so super after all.
Reason #7: You Could Infect People at High Risk of Complications
When President Biden said this was a pandemic of the unvaccinated, he wasn’t entirely right. Although COVID is mild for most vaccinated people, it’s more likely to be a death sentence for those who are immunocompromised, even if they’re vaccinated. Because vaccinated people who have breakthrough infections may be as infectious as unvaccinated individuals, a trip to the grocery store when you’re asymptomatic could mean a dark fate for the immunocompromised person you pass in the aisles.
Reason #8: Finding a COVID Test Is Going to be a Nightmare
If there’s anything Omicron has taught us, it’s that the U.S. is not ready for mass testing. As Omicron ripped through the nation, finding a COVID test was like trying to find a Golden Ticket.
President Biden announced earlier this month that the government would give away 500 million rapid tests, but if people are purposefully getting infected, two boxes per household might not be enough. Even now, the nation is far from solving its testing shortage problem. If you let your guard down and have more exposures, your tests will quickly run out, and you may spend days trying to book an appointment or waiting hours in a line at a walk-in testing clinic.