The good news about the omicron variant of COVID-19 is that symptoms typically are not as severe as other variants. The bad news is, well, just about everything else.
Infection rates are skyrocketing in Washington and other states, with the latest version of the disease transmitted more easily than previous ones. Coronavirus has reminded us, forcefully and adamantly, that it is not finished with us; our response will be essential to public health and to our community.
The primary defense against the virus is vaccines, which have undergone rigorous testing and received full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Health officials also recommend booster shots for those who were fully vaccinated more than five months ago.
Vaccines are not foolproof; some people who are fully vaccinated still contract the virus. But data clearly show that those who are vaccinated are far less likely to suffer severe symptoms. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, unvaccinated people are nine times more likely to be hospitalized and 14 times more likely to die from COVID.
That is pertinent as the number of infections surges.
On Monday last week, the United States reported a record number of confirmed cases, topping 1 million in a day for the first time. Washington — including Clark County — and Oregon also have reported record numbers of COVID cases.
With the widespread use of home-testing kits, those numbers probably are underreported. Although tests can be difficult to find at the local pharmacy, many people who experience COVID symptoms likely are testing at home and then isolating until their symptoms subside. There likely also are many who have mild symptoms and never bother to get tested. For many people, symptoms from the omicron variant are akin to the common cold.
In other words, many people who contract COVID are never added to the official toll. The lesson: Be considerate of your neighbors and family members and isolate if you might be infected. Even if your symptoms are mild, somebody else could have a severe reaction if infected.
“We have the tools to protect people from severe illness due to omicron — if people choose to use the tools,” President Joe Biden said last week. “There’s a lot of reason to be hopeful in (2022), but for God’s sake, please take advantage of what’s available.”
Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday said state officials plan to distribute more than 2 million home COVID tests and plan to expand a mass vaccination site in King County. A state-run vaccination site near Ridgefield, at the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds, closed in May; a county-run site at Tower Mall closed in June. Vaccines are still available through health care providers.
The impetus for concern about infection rates should be clear: We want to avoid the economic and school shutdowns of 2020, and we want to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed. In late December, the Washington State Hospital Association reported that capacity was more strained than at any time during the pandemic. Executive Vice President Taya Briley said, “Omicron is serious and it is rapidly spreading. Honestly our heads are spinning a little bit about how fast it is spreading.”
That does not mean it is time for panic or for drastic measures; we have much more knowledge about COVID-19 than when it first arrived in the United States. But it does mean that this is a good time for caution and for common sense. Because coronavirus is not done with us yet.