Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Calling Omicron ‘Mild’ Is Wishful Thinking

For weeks, the watchword on Omicron in much of America has been some form of phew. A flurry of reports has encouraged a relatively rosy view of the variant, compared with some of its predecessors. Omicron appears to somewhat spare the lungs. Infected laboratory mice and hamsters seem to handily fight it off. Proportionally, fewer of the people who catch it wind up hospitalized or dead. All of this has allowed a deceptively reassuring narrative to take root and grow: Omicron is mild. The variant is docile, harmless, the cause of an #Omicold that’s no worse than a fleeting flu. It is so trivial, some have argued, that the world should simply “allow this mild infection to circulate,” and avoid slowing the spread. Omicron, as Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky would have you believe, is “basically nature’s vaccine.”

In high-enough numbers, any Omicron infection can wreak havoc. Across the country, people are entering isolation in droves, closing schools and businesses, and hamstringing hospitals that can already ill-afford a staffing shortage. In many parts of the country, hospital capacities are already being reached and exceeded, making it difficult for people to seek care for any kind of illness. An overstretched system could also, ironically, mask the extent of Omicron’s tear: When hospitals are full, they cannot accept more patients, artificially deflating recorded rates of severe disease, even as total cases continue to rise. “Omicron may be more mild at the individual symptom level,” Duana Fullwiley, a medical anthropologist at Stanford who has studied how the term mild has affected people’s experience of sickle-cell anemia in Senegal, told me. “But we’re not talking about the severity of Omicron as it’s impacting the system.”

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