These two novel aspects of Omicron — high transmissibility and mildness of symptoms — played out recently for me when my two adult sons contracted Covid-19 soon after attending a large raucous wedding. Once they were diagnosed, I repeatedly reread the reports describing the mildness of the disease caused by the current variant, though as an infectious disease specialist I already knew the facts; these were my sons, after all. I also talked to the many friends who themselves had developed Covid-19 during the Omicron surge, seeking reassurance. And, being a parent, I didn’t sleep much.
My sons, who were both fully vaccinated and boosted, had the usual symptoms: first a sore throat, then some fever and aches and fatigue for several days. Within a week, they were mostly back to themselves. An unpleasant week for sure, but were it not for the pandemic, probably not quite bad enough to go see a doctor.
In fact, they got so well so (relatively) quickly that I began to wonder whether it might be more expedient from a public health perspective if we just quit trying to stem the pace and extent of the pandemic and just, well, let it rip. Once everyone got Covid and recovered, we could all be ourselves again, immune and carefree. Out with the masks, in with the face-to-face gatherings. New York could be the Big Apple once again!
Hospital staff, already frazzled by two years of the pandemic, would be under even greater pressure again. Plus, an illness that makes it hard to work for a week or two punches large holes in the workforce, making routine aspects of life a daily challenge.
Our current quandary of trying to resume a normal life while being hit by wave after wave of new variants gets at the core of the differences between an individual’s illness, such as my sons’ — where the model is one patient, one doctor, one problem, one remedy — and the daunting demands of guiding public health. There, the consumer is not one patient but rather an entire country, and the coin of the realm is a bulky unforgiving data set analyzed under the harsh gaze of often unreasonable politicians.
In truth, public health officials can never give the correct advice to everyone every time, so they settle for most of the people most of the time — an imperfect fit, especially in a time of screaming need like during a pandemic.