As the omicron variant continues to make its way through cities, causing breakthrough infections in the fully vaccinated and some reinfections in people who've already had COVID, it may start to feel as if everyone's getting sick.
If you've been spared a bout of COVID-19 thus far while others you know have tested positive, maybe you've wondered: Should I just expose myself and get it over with?
No, says Dr. Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
"There are several problems with this line of thinking," Beyrer told CNET. First, he said, though your risk of severe COVID is now rare if you're vaccinated and boosted, some vaccinated people have had serious cases. And if you aren't vaccinated, that risk is much higher. So why take the chance?
Secondly, vaccinated people can still spread the virus, Beyrer said, which puts others at risk who didn't choose to be sick. Elderly adults, people who are immunocompromised or children under 5 years old would be particularly at risk if you ran into them in your apartment building as you were isolating, for instance, or if you encountered them at the grocery store before you realized you were sick.
Third, he said, there's the risk of long COVID, which develops in about 15% to 20% of people with a confirmed COVID-19 infection -- including people who had relatively mild cases. These symptoms can range from bothersome to debilitating and disruptive to daily life.
Is catching the virus that's caused a pandemic inevitable? With the omicron variant, some experts have said, maybe. But choosing to get sick just to get it over with has consequences beyond you, even if you'll never know it.
Getting sick together: Like a chickenpox party?
"Pox parties" or parents intentionally exposing their children to chickenpox so they'd get immunity while young, were big before there was a vaccine for chickenpox, Beyrer said (adding that the generation that got chickenpox is now susceptible to shingles). There's no room for that mentality when it comes to COVID-19. "COVID is now a significantly preventable disease," he said.
As a scenario, we proposed this to Beyrer: Five fully vaccinated young adults in their 20s, who feel they're generally healthy and will likely get a mild case of COVID-19, decide to get COVID together in order to be done with it. What could happen?
Though the odds are low for anyone in this group getting really sick, Beyrer said, on average one of them will develop long COVID. And for neighbors of the group isolating together, including people who are immunocompromised, elderly or under the age of 5, the cluster in the group could lead to severe disease.
"With a virus as infectious as omicron, these infections can propagate widely," Beyrer said. "And these five young people would likely never know who they might have harmed."
Another thing to note is that COVID-19 isn't a "one and done" disease for everyone, and many people are battling it a second time after getting sick earlier in the pandemic. As the Cleveland Clinic notes, natural immunity wanes over time, like nonboosted vaccine immunity.
Just because omicron is causing less severe disease doesn't mean it's not serious
Omicron is leading to fewer hospitalizations and deaths than delta, Beyrer said. But it's also way more contagious, which is causing the number of cases to skyrocket. And just because it's causing less severe disease for the average person doesn't mean it will for everyone.
"When you have so many millions of cases, deaths will also increase," Beyrer said. "As we [are] now seeing in the USA."
The need to "flatten the curve" of people getting sick with COVID-19 in order to preserve hospital capacity for those who do end up very sick is just as strong now as it was in spring of 2020.
"We are already seeing the cost to the health care system and to health workers," Beyrer said. Hospital beds in 24 states were close to capacity, The New York Times reported Friday. And in addition to an increase of COVID-19 patients, more people getting sick means more health care workers who are sick. When hospitals don't have enough staff to care for patients, they have to "close a bed," as The Wall Street Journal highlighted.
Will everyone eventually get COVID-19 anyway? When will COVID-19 become endemic?
Some health experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden's chief medical advisor, and Dr. Janet Woodcock, the commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration, made recent comments saying, basically, everyone will be exposed to or get sick with COVID-19. But do they mean that'll happen this winter when the virus is expected to peak again? Or after COVID-19 becomes endemic and more like a seasonal disease?
"The reality is that the unvaccinated have a very high likelihood of becoming infected -- in South Africa this was over 80% of all persons sampled," Beyrer said. The vaccinated (and some of the boosted) are also likely to have exposures, given the sheer contagiousness of the omicron variant, but they're "much more likely to have either asymptomatic or mild infections, many of which will go unnoticed unless the person is tested for some reason."
The World Health Organization has warned that 50% of Europe could be infected with omicron in the coming weeks, which some experts think could foreshadow the US' path. But high numbers of COVID-19 infections don't necessarily indicate the end of a pandemic, because for something to become endemic, the virus needs some predictability, Catherine Smallwood, an officer with the World Health Organization, told The New York Times. And COVID-19 is anything but stable right now.
Many modelers predict that COVID-19 rates will start declining quickly around late January, Beyrer said, and we may see much lower numbers of cases by March. But whether COVID-19 will stop being a pandemic depends on a few factors, including whether vaccine and boosting rates go up, a vaccine for children under age 5 is found and omicron is the last variant of concern, he said.
"That assumes no other variants emerge as omicron is declining," Beyrer said. "An assumption which proved incorrect with the delta variant, as we know all too painfully."
Beyrer acknowledged the fatigue of experiencing a pandemic, and the feeling that it'll never end. But he said, "We're all fatigued." Actively trying to get sick now thinking it'll give you immunity later is harmful to the individual and harmful to the community, he said, and it'll also "maintain chains of transmission and prolong the pain."
Instead, people should focus on their mental health, Beyrer said. People should see family and friends "with as much care and safety as they can."
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.