Editor’s note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape’s Coronavirus Resource Center.
As COVID cases in the United States have skyrocketed to what seems like new records every other day — mostly due to Omicron — speculation is rising among some experts and scientific novices alike that infection for many seems unavoidable.
In a Senate hearing Tuesday, Acting Commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration Janet Woodcock, MD, even told the panel, “most people are going to get COVID.”
In mid-December, World Health Organization Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, said that vaccines alone won’t protect us against Omicron. In late December, an epidemiologist told the BBC News, “We have to be realistic; we are not going to stop Omicron.”
Posts are popping up on social media resurrecting ideas similar to chicken pox parties, where you intentionally mingle with infected people. One restaurant in Italy is charging $150 for a chance to not only get fine wine with your dinner, but COVID too.
So, if it’s highly likely everyone will be infected, why not listen to the chatter out there, just get infected on purpose, and get it over with?
All these narratives are hazardous, public health experts told Medscape Medical News.
“No, it is not inevitable that everybody will get Omicron infection,” said Greg Poland, MD, professor of medicine and infectious diseases at Mayo Clinic College of Medicine in Rochester, Minnesota, founder and director of the Mayo Vaccine Research Group, and editor-in-chief of the journal Vaccine. “There may well be higher rates of infection and high rates of exposure, but vaccinated, boosted and mask-wearing individuals have a very high chance of protecting themselves from infections.”
“So I think where the narrative [that everyone will get it] comes from is the idea that even if boosted there is still a chance someone could get infected if they were exposed.” However, he said, becoming infected requires a chain of events that is not inevitable.
“I think that it is certainly spreading like crazy,” said Aaron Glatt, MD, a spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America and chief of infectious diseases and hospital epidemiologist at Mount Sinai South Nassau in Oceanside, New York. “It is highly contagious and is going to impact even the vaccinated and boosted.”
Even so, he said, “There’s no way to say ‘Everyone is going to get it.’ ”
Even if inevitability seems true, with ICUs packed across the country and tests as hard to find as truffles, “it certainly isn’t the time to throw our hands up in the air and say, ‘Everyone is going to get it,’ ” said Omai B. Garner, PhD, director of clinical microbiology for the UCLA Health System in California. It sends the wrong message, he said.
Saying that Omicron will affect us across the board ”to me means we should stop trying to fight it,” Garner said. If that happens, he said, ”you will put the immunocompromised and the unvaccinated at risk. This is still a very dangerous disease for people who aren’t vaccinated.”
And the unvaccinated, he reminds people, include ”an entire population under age 5″ for whom no COVID vaccine has yet been authorized.
The Get-It-on-Purpose Narrative
The idea to deliberately catch COVID is also faulty reasoning, Poland said.
People may assume, mistakenly, that what they call ”natural immunity” — and what he prefers to more accurately term ”illness-induced” immunity — won’t have any negative consequences, and that once they are infected their immunity will be long-lasting.
Another issue, Poland said, is misunderstanding of what milder means when saying Omicron is generally milder than the Delta variant. If you are unvaccinated or insufficiently vaccinated and become infected with the Omicron variant, he said, the prognosis is better than with Delta, but you could still get very sick and die.
“I would certainly not recommend that people go out and try to get Omicron,” Glatt agreed. “If someone gets infected and recovers and does well, that would boost immunity, like [from] any infection,” he said. However, ”that means you have to get sick,” and that’s not a good idea.
The other misguided thinking, Poland said, is figuring that experts already know everything there is to know about Omicron.
Not true, he said. He cites recent studies, such as the newly published research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finding a higher risk for a diabetes diagnosis after children are infected with COVID and other research finding evidence of elevated autoantibodies that persist over time, even after mild or asymptomatic infections.
Poland provides consultations for every US vaccine maker. Glatt and Garner disclosed no relevant financial relationships.