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Covid-19 omicron variant might be weaker, but 'letting it rip' is not a smart idea

It's flawed to think those who aren’t high risk can just catch the virus and get it over with. Covid doesn't work that way.

Have you reached your breaking point with the pandemic? Are you ready to throw up your hands, let down your guard and accept that you’ll probably get Covid-19? Many Americans are openly wondering if this is the way to go. The U.K., Netherlands, France and several other E.U. countries are rolling back most of their Covid restrictions, and Australia, until now a global model for Covid mitigation, has flipped its approach from a “zero Covid” strategy to just “let it rip.” Many pundits, politicians and others are publicly saying that they are “over” Covid. You know who else is over Covid? The nearly 16,000 people who died from the virus between Jan. 19 and Jan. 25.

Beyond death counts and mortality rates, the widely confirmed debilitating effects of long-haul Covid should wipe all wrong-headed “let it rip” notions right out of our collective minds.

Americans are understandably frustrated. When the vaccines became available, we were told we could reach “herd immunity” if 60 or 70 percent of Americans got vaccinated, meaning that most of the population would become immune, leaving fewer people to infect. Then that number started to climb. Soon, the discussion of herd immunity quieted.

Two factors conspired to ensure that herd immunity remained an elusive goal. First, anti-vaccine activists and influential physicians and politicians twisted the concepts of freedom and personal liberty and spread disinformation to drive opposition to vaccination. As of Friday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 63 percent of eligible Americans are fully vaccinated, and just 40 percent of adults have received a booster. Second, the lack of a global vaccination strategy made the U.S. and the world susceptible to new, infectious variants.

This doesn’t mean it’s time to quit and just let nature take its course. Sacrificing vulnerable Americans because we are frustrated and inconvenienced endangers the very people we should be protecting. And deciding that the best course for those who aren’t at high risk is to just catch the virus and get it over with is equally flawed.

If you are young, healthy, vaccinated and boosted, you may think your risk of serious illness is low. You may think that getting Covid would be just like having the flu, or that the risk is worth it to get back to prepandemic life. But recent reports of people getting sick, and some even dying, after intentionally getting infected at “Covid parties” highlight the potential consequences of underestimating just how dangerous this virus can be.

While the risk of hospitalization and death from omicron for people who are vaccinated is lower than it is from the delta variant, it is not zero. There is also still a risk that you could get delta. Omicron may be the dominant U.S. Covid strain right now, but others are still circulating — and there is also the possibility of catching another variant as yet to be identified.

Beyond death counts and mortality rates, the widely confirmed debilitating effects of long-haul Covid should wipe all wrong-headed “let it rip” notions right out of our collective minds. According to an Oxford University study, more than 1 in 3 people experience “lingering post-Covid symptoms” up to six months after contracting the virus. Experts have identified as many as 200 long-haul side effects associated with Covid, affecting 10 different organ systems.

Covid, therefore, is not “just a cold.” And, yes, while almost every activity we do in our daily lives carries some risk, we generally don’t court that risk but seek to reduce it as much as possible. We should do the same with Covid.

We need agreement on the metrics that indicate sustained and limited Covid spread before relaxing such pandemic mitigation strategies as masking when inside, social distancing and limiting the size of indoor events. Until those are established, we must maintain current practices or risk prolonging the pandemic and increasing the chances of new variants with potentially devastating outcomes.

Unchecked spread could also be terrible for the economy. According to data from the Census Bureau, from Dec. 29 through Jan. 10, a pandemic record of 8.8 million people reported that they were caring for someone with Covid or sick themselves with the virus. The Federal Reserve said it clearly: “The path of the economy continues to depend on the course of the virus.” Increased illness resulting in absenteeism, further supply chain delays and additional business closures could wreak havoc.

And even now, the health care system is at a breaking point. Health care workers are leaving in record numbers. Health care worker resignations and illness resulted in nearly 40,000 fewer staffed hospital and intensive care unit beds, causing delays in life-saving medical procedures and surgeries unrelated to Covid. Omicron may result in a lower rate of hospitalizations, especially among the vaccinated, but its contagiousness still strains hospitals by the sheer number of people infected.

Then there’s the grotesque disregard that the “let it rip” approach has for the most vulnerable. Advocates are placing their personal convenience over the need to protect the health of others. The risk of hospitalization and death from Covid is greater for people who have chronic illness, including for the 42 percent of Americans who are obese; the more than 10 percent who have diabetes; and the approximately 7 million who are immunocompromised. Many more Americans have health conditions and disabilities, seen or unseen, that place them at escalated risk. Saying we should learn to “live with Covid” either ignores the health risks of large segments of the population or treats them as acceptable losses. Essentially, it implies that the fittest will learn to live with the virus, leaving disabled and chronically ill people, as well as children under 5, to fend for themselves.

And while the pandemic mostly spared children in its first two years, the omicron variant has led to a record number of pediatric infections and hospitalizations. While studies have found that boosters are critical to increasing immunity against omicron hospitalization, children under 12 still aren’t eligible for boosters, and children under 5 can’t be vaccinated from Covid at all.

In addition to the physical risk to children, schools nationwide have struggled to keep their doors open with in-person classes, given the shortages of teachers, bus drivers and other critical school personnel who are sick with Covid. Abandoning reasonable public health measures could prove to be even more disruptive to safe and consistent in-person learning.

Just like airport security was forever changed by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the pandemic will shape our lives for years to come. In order to minimize its impact, we need to meet disruption with resilience, learn to adapt and to fight collectively. If as Americans we have reached a point where our own self-interest and frustration outweigh the risks to others, we have far greater concerns than Covid.