My friend Fred (not his real name) is one of the most conscientiously COVID-avoidant people I know. In the pandemic’s early days, he was the guy at my health club who investigated mechanisms we could use to sterilize tennis balls in real time, during play, lest virus particles make their way from one player’s hand to the other, via the pathogenic conduit of yellow nylon fuzz.
So it came as a surprise when, earlier this month, Fred invited a few of us to his apartment for board games. He hadn’t stopped worrying about COVID. But this was a special occasion: A college friend whom we’d both known for more than 30 years was coming to town—call him Craig—and it would be a long time before either of us would get a chance to see him again. So I talked about it with my family, and decided the soiree was worth the risk.
I showed up at Fred’s apartment with a mask on. And, as per our per-arranged plans, I kept it on as I took a rapid COVID test administered by Craig (who’d already passed his own test, as had Fred). We all had a good laugh at the surreal spectacle, which, to pre-2020 eyes, might have looked like some kind of exotic recreational drug regimen.
Then Craig spectacularly fumbled the test vial, and splashed us with the buffer solution (which I dubbed COVID Juice), and we had to restart.
Thankfully, I came up negative. And after the obligatory joke whereby someone crudely draws in a second test line with a felt-tip pen, we sat down to play RoboRally and catch up with two years’ worth of news. One of Fred and Craig’s college friends, Carla, also dropped by.
Bright and early the next day came the phone call from Fred: Craig couldn’t get on his flight back home to the Pacific Northwest because he’d tested positive for COVID. And yes, Craig had taken another test, and he’d flunked that one, too.
All of us then joined a Zoom call and did the math on when Craig had likely become infected, how long we’d spent together, and the consequent likelihood that he’d given it to the rest of us. The conclusion was that we probably all now had COVID. So I grabbed the essentials, and headed down to my basement office for a week of quarantine.
For someone who’s been fretting hard about COVID these last two years, Fred really seemed to take the news in stride. This is a guy who basically hasn’t left home since February, 2020—the very paragon of a public-health-minded citizen. Then the moment he finally decides to hang out with a few well-tested friends, bam. It’s like the fastidious virgin who spends years guarding his virtue, then instantly comes down with the clap on the first night he surrenders to desire.
You’d think Fred would be upset with Craig (the diseased strumpet of my metaphor), or at least curse his ill fortune more generally. Yet there he was, on our group call, joining in the laughter at what a waste of time and money all those kitchen-table instant tests had proved to be.
The fact is that during our evening together, we’d (ironically) spent a lot of time talking about how we’d feel when we got Omicron. The variant is so insanely contagious that it seemed unrealistic to imagine that we weren’t all going to contract it sooner or later. With the Delta variant and its predecessor, I’d hewed to the hope that I could hold out indefinitely by avoiding close-range face-to-face contact. But Omicron appears to spread through airborne routes, so it’s easier to get it just by being in the same room with someone. And it reproduces quickly in the upper respiratory tract (though, mercifully, less so in the lungs).
“Everyone is going to get it,” I said, affecting a dramatic tone of grave prophecy as I waved my index finger around the table. “You and you—and you. No one will be spared.”
It says something about how long I’ve known Fred and Craig that I felt comfortable being this candid. No, it’s not like I’m the first person to say this kind of thing, let alone think it. (A Yale public-health lecturer argued this thesis in Atlantic way back in February, 2020, even when we were still dealing with the original, less contagious, more deadly form of the disease.) But expressing such an opinion in public still feels strangely forbidden—because the orthodox line that one still sees on official government channels, and even on many private citizens’ social-media feeds, is that we can completely beat this thing if we all follow the rules.
I thought this orthodox, absolutist approach was a useful and necessary message back in the pre-Omicron age—which is why I did my layman’s best to help spread the word on avoiding the kind of close contact that spread the disease. Before the Delta variant emerged, it’s worth noting, many jurisdictions around the world really did either get down to zero caseloads (or close to it) with aggressive public-health approaches. And the opposite argument, that we should just throw open the floodgates and put our faith in “herd immunity” was discredited; as was the often accompanying claim that COVID was “just like the flu,” a seasonal phenomenon that we should just get done with. Early estimates on COVID’s fatality rate typically ran to at least two percent at the time. And killing one in every 50 people didn’t strike me as the best way to manage a pandemic—especially since such an approach would mean overtaxing our intensive-care facilities, leading to a truly apocalyptic scenario in which our grandparents would bypass the hospital and go straight to the morgue.
But we’re not living in 2020 anymore. In my country, Canada, a stunning 88 percent of people over the age of 11 are fully vaccinated, with hundreds of thousands getting boosted every day. Moreover, Omicron is now known to be a milder disease that poses relatively little risk of death, or even hospitalization, for those who aren’t unvaccinated or immunocompromised. In Ontario, new cases have been running at about 10,000 per day since late December—and the real number is likely many times higher than that, since (as I can attest) it has become difficult for anyone to get PCR tested. Yet there are currently only 137 vaccinated ICU cases in a province of close to 15 million people. And while deaths have risen (not everyone is vaccinated, after all), they are still running at less than half of the peak levels from the first two waves.
In South Africa, where Omicron first was documented, it fell away quickly after a sudden surge. And scientists are predicting something similar will soon happen in the United States. Jeffrey Shaman, an infectious disease modeler and epidemiologist at Columbia University, for instance, recently reported that his projections “depict a rapid surge of cases nationally that peaks at record high numbers during the first one to three weeks of January.” This was in the New York Times, I should add, not otherwise known for soft-selling the COVID threat.
All of this was in my head when I assured my friends they were going to get Omicron. And I went further with my heresies, in fact, telling them that while I wouldn’t actively court the disease, I felt like there was never a better time to (accidentally) get it, since we’d all recently been boosted. “Needless to say, this isn’t a view I’d put on social media,” I added. “But it’s something I think about.”
To my surprise, it turned out they’d been having similar thoughts—though, like me, they weren’t prepared to go out and actually invite infection. A day later, one of them even confessed to being “happy” to find out they (likely) had Omicron, all the better to get the inevitable over with.
My situation is more complicated because I live with four other people, and it isn’t up to me to turn our house into one big Omicron party, like George Costanza involuntarily introducing Jerry’s kosher girlfriend to the joys of eating lobster. But it’s telling that when I texted my family members the news from my basement quarantine bunker, none of them even pretended to express concern over my health. Instead, they went on (at some considerable length) about how inconvenient it would be for them to get sick during exam period, and how this might impact the impending resumption of their hockey and volleyball careers.
Now you may be aghast at this kind of self-interested response, and suspect that I have raised callous children. But in their defence, my teenage daughters both have uncountable friends who’ve been catching Omicron these last few weeks—invariably with minor symptoms or none at all. Omicron has already become old news in their crowds, as has the vastly diminished health threat to those who are vaccinated and boosted. So yes, they still flee the kitchen when I text to warn them that COVID Man is momentarily coming up from his dungeon to grab some needed item. But what they’re scared of is missing out on activities and good grades, not of dying in a hospital bed, which was very much the horrifying image embedded in all our brains during the first phase of the pandemic.
Omicron isn’t a joke, even if my tone is light: People are dying from it. And if you’re not vaccinated, you should fix that. But even so, there’s no getting around the fact that the current round of lockdowns has an odd sort of feel to it. In private, if not in public, a growing number of us are willing to admit that we’re not really afraid of this disease anymore. Rather, what we fear is its indirect consequences: missed trips and get-togethers, forced absences from school and sports, home isolation, and the possibility of transmitting the disease to one of the small minority of people in our society whom Omicron is at all likely to hurt.
These indirect consequences flow from social reflexes and regulatory templates that emerged from another phase of the pandemic: Because we use the same word—COVID—to describe both 2022-era Omicron and the far more terrifying 2020-era disease that first appeared, we exhibit the same reflexes in the wake of a positive test result. But it’s getting harder and harder to ignore the growing disconnect between response and reality, which is mirrored by the phase shift between the public and private conversations people are having about the disease. The terror is performed. The good humour is hidden.
Of course, the next COVID variant might change everything. (Imagine, for instance, a disease that spreads like Omicron, kills like Delta, and isn’t abated by existing vaccines.) But we’re not there yet, and implementing draconian policies on the basis of as-yet non-existent diseases isn’t something most of us would, or should, support. Instead, it would be helpful to start acknowledging—in public statements, not just private whispers—that the project at hand is no longer preventing Omicron infections outright. Rather, it’s managing Omicron’s pace in order to ensure hospitals aren’t overtaxed, and convincing as many people as possible to get vaccinated before they get hit by the inevitable.
And yes, in some cases, that will mean families having frank conversations about whether it makes sense for everyone to get the disease all at once, and so quarantine together, rather than a drawn out process whereby each gets it one by one.
By way of example, I might note, my own family had exactly this kind of candid conversation a few days ago. Different views were shared, though I don’t feel comfortable disclosing which prevailed. Suffice it to say that I’m typing these words from the basement, alone, waiting patiently for my dinner to be placed at the door.