Brace Yourself for Omicron… and Omicron Hysteria

Pre-Omicron: Confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Virginia. Source: Virginia Department of Health

by James A. Bacon

The Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus has set foot (perhaps I should say set its little viral spikes) in California, and it is only a matter of days (perhaps hours) before it arrives in Virginia. How worried should we be?

Some will dismiss the virus as nothing special, nothing to divert us from business as usual — the virus is said to have mild symptoms, after all. Others will engage in non-stop fear porn — we don’t know what we don’t know about the variant! Most of us, I suspect, will take a wait-and-see attitude before either blowing it off and putting ourselves at unnecessary risk or subjecting ourselves to another round of economy-wrecking, school-debilitating government mandates.

Personally, I incline toward the former response. The virus isn’t going away; it will continue mutating, and we have to learn to live with it just as we live with the flu. Maintaining a permanent regime of shutdowns and restrictions has massive unintended consequences, from medical procedures foregone to increased social isolation, depression, substance abuse and suicide; from supply-side disruptions to a massive and unsustainable run-up in the federal debt.

At the same time, I try to maintain intellectual humility. In the early stages of the pandemic, I equated the mortality rate with that of the flu. I severely under-estimated the death toll. I’ve also seen the “experts” get it wrong time after time, from “two weeks to bend the curve” to “you’ll only need two shots,” not to mention ignoring the aforesaid massive disruption to mental health and economic stability. We should all recognize the limits of our knowledge.

All too often, peoples’ response to the COVID-19 virus depends upon their political beliefs. As a nation we have divided into antagonistic camps over how we perceive the dangers of the virus and how we tolerate rule by government edict. Not only does the populace at large fall prey to tribalistic thinking, but so do the so-called “experts” in the political class who remain unshaken in their conviction of their intelligence and rectitude despite two years of blunders.

Let us, then, unblinkingly heed the data, even when it is not consistent with our preconceived beliefs.

The chart atop this blog post is a pre-Omicron snapshot of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Virginia as of Dec. 2, 2021. If Omicron is super-transmissible, this is a key metric to watch.

The following chart captures a pre-Omicron snapshot of hospitalizations in Virginia. If cases spike again but hospitalizations don’t, then we shouldn’t care about Omicron. We should also be alert to the possibility that Omicron might displace competing strains and be less virulent in its effects. That would be a good thing, not a reason to engage in a collective freak-out.

Source: Virginia Department of Health

Here is a pre-Omicron view of COVID-related deaths. This is the acid test. Is Omicron deadlier than other variants of COVID-19? At the moment, there is no evidence to suggest that it is. It would be premature to initiate crackdown measures on the assumption that it will be. On the other hand, we should remain vigilant against the possibility that it could be. Watch this metric closely.

Source: Virginia Department of Health

In making rational decisions regarding how we as individuals and society as a whole respond to COVID, we should not focus exclusively on the COVID statistics.  We need to consider the downstream effects of both the virus and measures taken to combat the virus.

Here is a chart showing the number of mental health admissions to Virginia hospitals:

Mental health hospitalizations

Oh, wait, the Virginia Department of Health does not report that number on its COVID dashboard.

Here is a chart showing the number of drug-overdose admissions to hospitals and recorded drug overdose deaths:

Drug overdose admissions

Oh, wait, the Virginia Department of Health does not report that series either.

Here is a graph showing the number of small businesses that have filed for bankruptcy or closed up shop.

Small business closures and bankruptcies.

Oh, wait, VDH doesn’t track economic data.

You get the idea. There’s a lot of stuff we’re not measuring.

Here is another very important thing we don’t know because we’re not measuring it: do natural immunities from previous exposure to the virus confer greater or less resistance to Omicron than the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines?

If Omicron is a milder version of the virus, would it make sense for those not at risk due to age, obesity, or immunological issues to simply get exposed and be done with it?

In summary, there is a lot we don’t know because we don’t measure it, but there are important metrics — especially hospitalizations and deaths — that we can measure and will tell us important things. Let us not assume anything about Omicron. Before initiating another wave of shutdowns, let us see how this new phase of the epidemic unfolds.