Many people ask me whether they should intentionally get COVID-19’s Omicron variant and just get it over with. Their reasoning – it’s spreading like wildfire, it’s mild, some people don’t even know that they have it, and it’s only a matter of time until we all catch it.
So, why not have ‘Omicron parties’?
Decades ago, parents would expose their kids to children infected with chickenpox, reasoning that the disease was less severe for the young. So isn’t this the same thing?
Well, yes and no. Those exposures were actually riskier that we knew, and these are, if anything, only more so.
You could have a severe case
Here’s why: Even though illness from Omicron is milder than other variants in most people, and even asymptomatic in some, for the moment, there’s no way to predict how severe a case will be. If you’re unvaccinated, the risk of being hospitalized increases, putting you in the ICU on a ventilator, with a real risk of not surviving.
But even if you are vaccinated, deliberate exposure means a higher chance of getting a severe or fatal case. Being healthy and having antibodies from natural infection or vaccination does not mean that you won’t get sick.
And the risk increases greatly when you’re 65 or older, have a weak immune system, diabetes, chronic kidney, heart, lung, and liver disease. And even a mild case can still be rough, with a high fever, sore throat, heavy nasal congestion, aches and pains, and swollen lymph nodes.
Whatever people may have told you, This is not a bad cold; it’s a life-threatening disease.
You could get long COVID
And while it’s too early to be sure, long COVID could also follow Omicron infections. Long COVID sufferers complain of shortness of breath, severe fatigue, fever, dizziness, brain fog, diarrhea, heart palpitations, muscle and abdominal pain, mood changes, and sleep difficulties. And while these symptoms can be debilitating, the more severe type of long COVID can damage the lungs, heart, and kidneys.
The good news is that vaccination reduces the risk of getting long COVID, but it’s not clear yet following a breakthrough case. Other long-term effects include persistent loss of smell or taste after six months or more, autoimmune antibodies, and lower sperm counts.
Vaccination delivers better immunity
You might think that natural infection with Omicron will induce a lasting and robust immune response, but it’s actually the opposite. COVID-19 vaccines and boosters provide better and longer-lasting protection. Vaccines work. The current vaccines protect against the Delta variant and reduce the risk of getting the severe disease with Omicron. In addition, a natural Omicron infection will probably not protect you from future variants.
And Omicron is not the only one. So there’s no way to know if you’re exposing yourself to the Omicron variant or the more-severe Delta variant. Or something else.
And although you may get a mild case, you could pass the virus to someone else at risk for severe illness.
System stress means less access to treatment
More infections and severe diseases significantly burden hospitals and intensive care units, with more hospital staff getting sick, leading to staffing shortages and reduced elective surgeries and care for other illnesses.
Too many sick patients also limit the supply of the latest treatments like monoclonal antibody therapy (e.g., sotrovimab) and antiviral pills like paxlovid. Also, as the pandemic continues, we anticipate better new vaccines and therapies which will only be available in the future.
You could also be prolonging the pandemic. The more infections we have, the greater the chances of new variants. Omicron may mutate, and the next one be even more aggressive.
It is not time to be complacent
High case numbers mean more severe disease, and even if you contract the disease later, that is always better than now, as we’ll know more, and have better treatments.
Remember, the simplest measures work – wash your hands, keep your hands off your face, social distance, wear a protective face mask over your mouth and nose, and get vaccinated.
And spend your time with others who are.