“Nations around the planet are making a subtle but consequential pivot in their war against the coronavirus: Crushing the virus is no longer the strategy,” reports Joel Achenbach of The Washington Post. “The phrase often heard now in the United States and many other nations is “live with the virus.” That new stance is applauded by some officials and scientists, and welcomed by people exhausted with the hardships and disruptions of this global health emergency entering its third year.
“But there are also disease experts who fear the pendulum will swing too far the other way. They worry that many world leaders are gambling on a relatively benign outcome from this omicron variant surge, and sending messages that will lead people who are normally prudent to abandon the social distancing and mask-wearing known to limit the pathogen’s spread. Epidemiologists say the live-with-it strategy underestimates the dangers posed by omicron.”
The consensus among experts is that “Omicron is essentially unstoppable but of limited threat to individuals even as it causes societal chaos,” Achenbach reports. “Ali Mokdad, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, said he believes that about half of the U.S. population will be infected with omicron during the next three months, with most cases asymptomatic.” But it will keep sickening and killing people.
So, in the absence of further prevention, what can we expect? “In the ideal scenario, omicron’s alarming wave of infections will spike quickly, leaving behind a residue of immunity that will keep a broad swath of the population less vulnerable to future infections,” Achenbach writes. “This would be the last major, globally disruptive wave of the pandemic. The virus would still be around but would no longer be in a special category apart from other routinely circulating and typically nonfatal viruses such as influenza.”
But ideal scenarios often involve wishful thinking. Scientists don’t know how long immunity from having omicron will lasts, and “The virus keeps mutating,” Achenbach notes. “Slippery variants packing a more powerful punch could yet emerge, and virologists say that, contrary to what has sometimes been conjectured, viruses do not inexorably evolve toward milder strains.”
But others say that approach has risks. James Lawler, co-director of the University of Nebraska’s Global Center for Health Security, told Achenbach, “If we just completely let everything go and allow the omicron epidemic to run its natural course, we’ll completely overrun our health system and be left in a situation potentially worse than what we experienced in early 2020.”
Around the world, Achenbach writes, “There is fatalism mixing with pandemic fatigue and, in some countries, science denial or ideological rejection of the restrictions and mandates that many public-health experts consider to be common sense measures in a pandemic. And anecdotally, people may rationally feel the battle is lost, the virus has won.
“Public health officials warn that this is a dangerous attitude. It’s true that for an individual, risk might be low. But when a virus spreads as quickly as omicron does, the equation suddenly spits out alarming results — millions of people sick at once, many of them with underlying conditions that have already put them on the edge of a cliff and vulnerable to a shove.”