The question hung in the air like a bad odor, silencing the small group of fully vaccinated and boosted friends and family at my dinner table.
“Why not just get Omicron and get it over with? It’s mild, right? And it can boost immunity?”
The fully vaccinated, boosted, well-educated friend who asked was sincere, echoing opinions heard on many social platforms.
The idea of intentionally trying to catch Omicron is “all the rage,” said Dr. Paul Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, with an exasperated sigh.
“It’s caught on like wildfire,” agreed Dr. Robert Murphy, executive director of the Havey Institute for Global Health at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
“And it’s widespread, coming from all types of people, the vaccinated and boosted and the anti-vaxxers,” he added, with a warning. “You’d be crazy to try to get infected with this. It’s like playing with dynamite.”
In case the thought had crossed your mind, here are five reasons why you should not purposely try to catch Omicron.
1. It’s not a ‘bad cold’
Significant fever, body aches, swollen lymph nodes, sore throats and heavy congestion are often reported even in milder cases of Omicron variant, Murphy said, leaving people debilitated for days.
“People are talking about Omicron like it’s a bad cold. It is not a bad cold,” Murphy said. “It’s a life-threatening disease.”
A recent study of over a million people published by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the risk of a severe outcome from Covid-19 was higher in vaccinated people who were 65 or older, people with weakened immune systems, or people who had at least one of the following health conditions: diabetes or chronic kidney, cardiac, pulmonary, neurologic or liver disease.
However, even people without any underlying health conditions can get severely ill, Murphy said. “I have a vaccinated, boosted patient right now – over 65 with no underlying risk factors — who is in the hospital and doing poorly.”
It is true that if you catch the Omicron variant of Covid-19, as opposed to the Delta variant, “you’re less likely to be hospitalized, less likely to go to the ICU (intensive care unit), less likely to be put on a mechanical ventilator and less likely to die – and that’s true of all age groups,” Offit said.
“But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be a severe illness,” Offit added. “It’s just less severe. But you don’t have a 0% chance of dying. You should never want to get infected.”
2. You could get long Covid
Losing your sense of smell (and therefore your sense of taste) has become a more common symptom in mild cases of Covid-19. Studies show some 80% of people recover the ability within a month or so, but others still can’t smell or taste after six months or more. An unfortunate few may never regain those two senses.
As unpleasant as that may be, it’s only one of a number of health concerns that can last and last after a case of Covid-19. Called “long Covid,” the phenomenon is characterized by such debilitating symptoms as shortness of breath, severe fatigue, fever, dizziness, brain fog, diarrhea, heart palpitations, muscle and abdominal pain, mood changes and sleep difficulties.
Severe forms of long Covid can damage lungs, heart and kidneys, as well as your mental health and may qualify as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act and other federal statutes.
“We’re still trying to understand long Covid,” Offit said. “Because we don’t understand it, I wouldn’t be so quick to want to get an infection from a natural virus.
“A natural virus is always called the wild type virus, and there’s a good reason for that: It’s out of control,” Offit said. “Don’t ever risk catching an infection from a natural virus.”
3. You’re spreading the disease to children
Just over half (54%) of children between the ages of 12 and 17 eligible for Covid-19 vaccines have been fully vaccinated. Only 23% of children between ages 5 and 11 have received their first dose, according to the CDC.
Because booster doses – considered a key warrior in the fight against Omicron –were just approved by the CDC for children as young as 12 last week, few children have received that third shot.
That means any risky behavior that might expose you to Omicron, such as not wearing a mask, not following social distancing guidelines, or gathering with crowds, especially indoors, will potentially expose others who may then carry the virus to their children.
Data from the American Academy of Pediatrics shows an upward trend of infections in children, which far exceeds “the peak of past waves of the pandemic.”
“For the week ending January 6th, over 580,000 child COVID-19 cases were reported,” according to numbers released Monday by the AAP.
“This number is a 78% increase over the 325,000 added cases reported the week ending December 30th and an almost tripling of case counts from the two weeks prior,” the AAP stated.
Covid-19 Infections in children have typically been mild so far in the pandemic, but the sheer magnitude of cases caused by the very contagious Omicron variant is sending children under age 18 to hospitals in record numbers, according to data from the CDC.
“I would say the best way to keep those children protected is to vaccinate them as they’re eligible and surround them by siblings and parents who are vaccinated themselves,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky in a Friday news conference.
4. You’ll stress the health care system
By deliberately catching any variant of SARS-CoV-2, which is the official name of the novel coronavirus, “you’re going to keep the pandemic going and stress the health care system,” Murphy said.
Over the weekend, nearly a quarter of the more than 5,000 hospitals that report into the US Department of Health and Human Services said they were suffering a “critical staff shortage.” That’s a larger number than any other time during the pandemic, the data showed.
Staffing shortages are expected to grow even more as frontline health care workers are either infected or forced to quarantine after being exposed to Covid-19. The dearth of health care staff couldn’t come at a worse time – more than 138,000 Covid-19 patients were in US hospitals as of Saturday, according to HHS.
In addition, the HHS data found that ICUs across the country are more than 80% full, with almost 30% of the beds being used to treat Covid-19 patients. Elective surgeries are being cut, and health care officials are worried that the nation’s health system won’t be able to do its job.
“The health care system is not just designed to take care of people with Covid. It’s designed to take care of kids with appendicitis and people who have heart attacks and get into car accidents,” Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, told CNN on Sunday.
“And all of that is going to be much, much more difficult because we have a large proportion of the population that is not vaccinated, plenty of high-risk people who are not boosted,” he added.
5. Don’t mess with Mother Nature
Was it ever a good idea to catch a disease on purpose? Those of a certain age will recall when parents used to host “chicken-pox parties” to expose their young children to an infected child. Because cases of adult chicken pox are more severe, the idea was to have your child catch it early to “get it over with.”
“Oh, that was a bad idea too,” Offit said. He told a story about an educational film on vaccines he made years ago, and the cameraman revealed he had a sister who had taken her child to a chicken pox party. Tragically, the child died from the infection.
“Don’t mess with Mother Nature,” he said. “She’s been trying to kill us ever since we crawled out of the ocean onto the land.”