Keith Bishop/Getty Images
Keith Bishop/Getty Images
Millions of people are testing positive with COVID-19 in the U.S. each week and the FDA warns that most Americans will get the virus at some point. With growing evidence that the omicron variant likely causes milder disease, some people may be thinking: Why not encourage omicron to infect us so we can enjoy life again?
That's not a good idea for many reasons, say infectious disease experts and doctors. Don't throw your mask away and do not even think about hosting a 1970s-style chicken pox party, the omicron version. Here's why:
1. You could get sicker than you want to
"Even for boosted people, just because you don't end up in the hospital, you can still be pretty miserable for a few days," Dr. Ashish Jha, a physician and Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health said on All Things Considered. "Not sure why you need to seek that out."
While omicron seems to provoke milder illness for many people, "the truth is that it's probably somewhere in between what you think of as a common cold or flu and the COVID that we had before," says Dr. Emily Landon, an infectious disease physician at UChicagoMedicine. "And there are still a lot of risks of getting COVID."
And, of course, if you have any risk factors that put you in the vulnerable category, including age, you could still get severely sick.
Even if you do get an extremely mild case, you'll miss out on life while isolating.
2. You could spread the virus to vulnerable people
When you're infected with COVID, you can unknowingly spread it to others before you have symptoms. You might expose your family, roommates, co-workers, or random people in the grocery store, says epidemiologist Bill Miller of The Ohio State University.
"And while you might have made a conscious decision to allow yourself to be exposed and infected, those people have not made that same choice," he says. And they might have a higher risk level than you.
You've forced your decision on others, Miller says, and that decision could cause serious illness or even death.
Or you could spread it to a child who is still too young to get vaccinated, says Dr. Judy Guzman-Cottrill, professor of pediatrics at Oregon Health & Science University. "Across the country and in my own state, we are seeing more sick children being hospitalized with COVID pneumonia, croup, and bronchiolitis," she says.
3. Your immunity will last months — not years
Unlike chickenpox, getting a COVID-19 infection is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for long.
T wo main things impact how well our immunity will protect us, explains Jeffrey Townsend, an evolutionary biology and biostatistics professor at The Yale School of Public Health. First, antibody levels: Immediately after you get a shot, booster or infection, your antibodies skyrocket and you're unlikely to get sick. Unfortunately, those levels don't stay high.
Second, the changing nature of the pathogen: As the virus evolves and variants emerge, our waning antibodies may not be able to target the new variants of the virus as precisely. Omicron is a prime example of a virus that has mutated to be able to continue infecting us — that's what the term immune evasion refers to.
So how much time does an infection buy you?
While that's hard to answer precisely, Townsend's team estimates that reinfection could occur somewhere between three months and five years after infection, with a median of 16 months. This is based on an analysis of data from previous antibodies to previous coronaviruses,
"At three to 16 months, you should be on notice," he says. "The clock is starting to tick again."
4. You could add to the crisis in the health care system
Given that hospitalizations are at pandemic highs, and hospital resources and staffing are stretched thin in many areas, your infection could add to the strain, Miller says.
"Your decision to allow yourself to be infected may trigger a cascade of infections, often unknowingly, that leads to even more people needing to be in the hospital," Miller says.
Not only are health care workers stressed and exhausted right now, but patients who have other health problems are getting turned away and even dying because of the flood of COVID patients.
Contributing to that would be socially irresponsible, Landon says: "You do not want it hanging over your head in terms of karma."
5. If you get sick now, you may not have access to treatments that are still in short supply
Monoclonal antibody infusions, among the most effective treatments to prevent serious illness from COVID, are in short supply right now.
"We can't rescue people as well as we could when we had delta because we don't have as many monoclonal antibodies," Landon says. "We're completely out of [Sotrovimab] and we don't know when we're getting another shipment to our hospital."
Other hospitals have reported similar shortages of the monoclonal antibody that has been shown to be effective against omicron.
It's the same problem with new antiviral medication such as Paxlovid, Pfizer's drug that must be given within the first few days of symptoms for it to be most effective. Landon says her hospital has limited supplies. "They're not available for most people right now," she says.
Also, it's likely that the future holds even better treatments, Jha told NPR. "We're going to get more therapeutics over time. So anything we can do to delay more infections - they may be inevitable, but there's no reason to do it now."
6. The chances of getting long COVID after omicron haven't been ruled out
Omicron hasn't been around long enough for us to know whether it may cause long COVID in the same way past variants have. Vaccination reduces the risk of developing long COVID, "but we don't know anything about how it works in omicron," Landon says.
We do know that some people with mild infections get long COVID, she says. And many healthy people end up with COVID symptoms that last for weeks or months, Miller adds.
"We don't know, yet, how much long COVID there will be with omicron — but I would argue it's not worth the chance," he says.
So in conclusion...
Experts agree: Omicron parties are out.
Even though it may seem inevitable, "it's still worth it to avoid getting COVID if you can," Landon says.
So why were chickenpox parties different?
"Getting infected with the omicron variant is not the same as getting chickenpox — it does not provide lifelong immunity," Guzman-Cottrill says.
In the case of chickenpox, people who got the disease have a chance of getting shingles later in life, whereas shingles is "much less common" in people who got the vaccine, according to the CDC.
Without knowing the long-term effects of COVID, whether delta or omicron, "it's better to get our immunity through a vaccine," says Ali Mokdad, chief strategy officer of population health at the University of Washington.
And avoiding infection could help protect us all, says Guzman-Cottrill: "Allowing this virus to continue spreading does one thing: it gives the virus an opportunity to further mutate. I think it's safe to say that nobody wants to see another new variant of concern in 2022."