Many people have asked me the same question in recent days: If omicron is a milder variant, and contracting it provides additional immunity, why not get it over with? Even previously cautious individuals are asking whether they should intentionally expose themselves to covid-19. If they’re going to get the coronavirus sooner or later, why not get it now?
I understand people’s weariness with the pandemic and continue to believe that the vaccinated should not have restrictions imposed on them. But here are four reasons people shouldn’t deliberately try to catch the coronavirus:
Hospitals are full. It is true that omicron is milder than previous variants. The vast majority of vaccinated and boosted people will not end up hospitalized if they are infected. But some will become severely ill. Hospitals are at or over capacity in many parts of the country, and hospitalizations from covid-19 have just exceeded the previous peak from last winter. If you are sick enough to need care, you may have to wait hours in the emergency room for treatment and then spend days in the ER waiting for a hospital bed.
No one wants such a delay in their own medical treatment. We should also be very worried about the impact on our health-care system. At the beginning of the pandemic, public-health experts talked a lot about “flattening the curve.” The idea was that if we could spread out infections over a longer period of time, there wouldn’t be so much demand for health-care resources all at the same time. Omicron may be less severe, especially for the vaccinated, but the sheer volume of infections is once again overwhelming our hospitals. Now is the time to decompress our hospitals — not add more strain.
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Being sick isn’t pleasant. For most vaccinated individuals, getting omicron will feel like a bad cold or the flu. Many people will experience up to a week or longer of fatigue, fever, congestion, sore throat, headache and overall crumminess. Even if these symptoms aren’t life-threatening, they are not something people should want. And even if someone is fortunate to be totally asymptomatic, getting infected could mean days off from work. It could present major challenges in caring for young children and other family members.
There’s also the possibility of long-haul covid-19. Some studies report that more than 1 in 10 people infected with the coronavirus have symptoms 12 weeks after their diagnosis. Vaccination appears to decrease the likelihood of long covid. Given how new omicron is, it’s not known what proportion of those vaccinated and infected with omicron will have persistent symptoms.
Even if you’re protected, you could still infect others. Children under 5 are not yet eligible for vaccines, and there are millions of immunocompromised Americans who are not afforded the full protection of vaccination. Surely, no one wants to be the person who inadvertently infects a vulnerable individual.
What if you don’t live with young kids or medically frail people? Could you have a “chickenpox party,” omicron-style, and isolate yourself as soon as you test positive? Again, this is not something I’d recommend because you could be a public health hazard to others. The time of maximal infectiousness begins one to two days before the onset of symptoms. Unless you are tested with a reliable test daily, you won’t know when you first become infectious, and could transmit the coronavirus to people who did not choose to get omicron.
What can we do about the rapid spread of omicron? Ask Dr. Leana Wen your questions Jan. 13 at 2 p.m. ET
Better treatments are coming. Only one monoclonal antibody cocktail, sotrovimab, is effective against omicron. But the treatment is in such short supply that some hospitals are forced to use other monoclonal antibodies that likely do not work against this new variant. Pfizer’s antiviral pill, paxlovid, has incredible promise to reduce hospitalization and death, but only 65,000 treatment courses have been allocated to states.
These supply issues will soon improve. The White House is expecting 4 million paxlovid courses to be available by the end of January, for example. Early treatment depends on rapid diagnosis, and 500 million tests are to be rolled out this month, as well. The longer that Americans can hold off from getting covid-19, the more likely they will be able to access timely testing and state-of-the-art treatment.
Omicron is spreading rapidly throughout the United States. Millions will contract it this week. It may be inevitable that most Americans contract covid-19 at some point, but there are good reasons to take common sense measures such as indoor masking to put off omicron for a while longer. That’s better for you, and better for others around you.