Let’s not play Russian roulette with Omicron and embrace it as inevitable

This variant may be less severe, but here's why we should remain vigilant. This column is an opinion from Dr. Cory Neudorf, an interim senior medical health officer with the Saskatchewan Health Authority. The article appeared in CBC.CA on January 18. The original article is here.  

Waves of COVID-19 keep coming with disturbing frequency, wearing down even those who have followed public health advice up to now. Despite warnings that the pandemic would likely last two to three years with multiple surges requiring an ebb and flow of restrictions, many people feel we should be back to normal with the availability of vaccines, and are feeling something akin to buyer's remorse at this stage.

More transmissible COVID-19 variants have poked holes in our layers of defence, finding ways to get around masks and vaccines in some cases and taking advantage of our need for increased social connection. Due to its billing as a less severe form of COVID-19, is it any wonder that the Omicron variant wave is tempting us to just "get it over with already" and resign ourselves to getting sick?

Unfortunately, science and sober second thought shows us that is likely not a good idea. Eventually, we hope to be able to live with COVID-19 in a more endemic state, with some combination of a less severe variant and sufficient population immunity but we aren't quite there yet.

Here are a few reasons why it may not be a great idea to "get it over with" and catch the Omicron variant of COVID-19:

  • Omicron may be less severe, but it's not mild. Just like previous variants, the risk of complications increases with extremes in age, or in those with other medical conditions, but it also increases with less prior immunity. Omicron doesn't appear to be much different than previous variants in the unimmunized. Its relatively milder effects may be partly due to less severe outcomes in the immunized population.
  • Even if you manage to avoid hospitalization, you can still have long-term symptoms from this viral infection. The so-called long-COVID symptoms, which can last weeks or months for many people, include memory, concentration or sleep problems, aches and pains, fatigue, headache, depression and anxiety, shortness of breath, and myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart muscle.
  • If you manage to avoid these problems, you can still end up spreading COVID to others even before you know you are contagious, contributing to a runaway growth in cases, including in those who are more vulnerable.
  • Too many cases at once leads to staff shortages in many essential services and adds to hospital overcapacity since a fixed percentage of these people will require hospital treatment and ICU care. This increases the number of COVID deaths and deaths due to other health issues that can't be handled. We all need to do our part to keep numbers low, or at least spread them out over time to allow the system to cope.
  • Also, any immunity you gain from contracting COVID is short term and may be less robust than vaccine-acquired immunity. Infection also carries with it much higher risks of complications than any side effects the vaccine can produce. Catching this strain doesn't actually mean you are done with COVID personally. You will still be at risk from future variants.

Intentionally exposing yourself to any disease is like playing Russian roulette. You don't know if you or those more vulnerable around you will get complications. While it is more transmissible, the Omicron variant is still stopped by the measures that have worked for previous waves, we just need to be more vigilant.

In addition, we are fortunate to have vaccines that are effective and safe against all current COVID variants with a booster dose, protecting many against infection and protecting most from severe disease if they happen to get breakthrough illness.

There is no need for returning to the full lockdowns that were required prior to vaccines, as long as people adhere to public health measures during these resurgences and get booster doses as needed.

Eventually, these waves will recede. They will resolve faster if we continue to use common sense, and think beyond ourselves for the good of our community, especially as more of the global population is immunized. We have come too far to quit before we get to the finish line.