Rapid ascent of Omicron shows that while we plan, Covid laughs

We must keep in mind the life lesson that what’s a correct Covid approach one week can look like utter foolishness by the end of a month, writes Alison O’Connor.
Rapid ascent of Omicron shows that while we plan, Covid laughs

More than ever now, it seems as if we have to begin to live our lives. Picture: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

I’ve just booked a flight to a foreign country for a little later in the year. How wild is that? 

Actually, if you’ve been a rather compliant Covid rule follower like myself — where the dust will have to be wiped clean from a passport not used since October 2019 — it does feel rather risky. But it just has to be done.

Re-acquainting yourself with the workings of an airline website is one thing, but you’re also booking with the knowledge that whether you go or not will totally depend on how things are looking pandemic-wise at that time; how things are at home, and how they are in the country where you’re headed.

There is a great big ‘U factor’ that comes with Covid — the great unknown — that could throw up something you never even contemplated.

But more than ever now, it seems as if we have to begin to live our lives. Yet who would have thought we’d be thinking along those lines when we are awash with Covid, with case figures in the tens of thousands and no real way of knowing now just how many of us are really infected. It is truly mind-boggling that, according to Nphet estimates, there would be up to 40,000 daily cases being reported, instead of around 20,000, except for the current constraints on testing.

We have around 1,000 people in hospital and about 90 of those in intensive care. Yet there is talk of the nightclubs opening in February.

Nphet has said its modelling of Omicron suggests we’re around the peak of this wave, but we won’t actually know that is the case until it has actually happened. They’re not even expecting a rapid decline in the figures when it does.

The decisions made by the Government this week, and the signalling of more to loosen restrictions over the next while, show that we are also officially in a different place. There is a dizzying amount of new information going around — difficult even for the health professionals to get their heads around, relating to testing, isolating, and masking. 

All that was previously held dear in terms of fighting Covid — the test, trace, and isolate mantra — has been upended, or at least largely transformed, with this new regime.

Overnight, it seems, we’ve gone from Covid prim to playing a little fast and loose, erring a little on the wild side of the advice from the European Centre for Disease Control.

This is on the basis that mostly the Omicron symptoms are milder and we have had a very successful booster campaign.

Mind you, it’s all to be done while wearing a high-grade mask and with antigen tests having turned from “snake oil” to the cream on the Covid-fighting cake. God bless those mere mortals trying to get to grips with the new complex rules. It’s possible that it is only with this milder version of Covid — where you do not become as ill — that most people will have the mental capacity to understand what it is they are supposed to be doing, and for how long, in the event that they develop symptoms.

But it just has to be done, doesn’t it? We’ve got this far into January, and post Christmas, without a lockdown. There is no getting away from the discombobulation of seeing Nphet meet, as it did last week, while official virus numbers were hitting 20,000 and well beyond it, yet further recommendations to the Government were not deemed necessary.

As Green Party leader Eamon Ryan pointed out during the week, we have the second-lowest death rate in Europe at present, and one of the key reasons for that is because vaccines do work.

Despite huge doubts on the part of parents over Christmas, schools have returned after the break, although it is a little early to be judging the effect of that on virus figures yet. Most immediately in Government circles, it is felt that this week’s decisions had to be made to keep the economy open, but also, as Taoiseach Micheál Martin, stated: “The key metrics in terms of mortality in terms of hospitalisation and admission to ICUs are such that we are managing this wave effectively.”

At other times in this pandemic, our ministers have been all about searching for the silver bullet that would sort out our Covid problem du jour, but right now the sense is that there is a bullet that needs to be bitten in terms of easing things off for economic and mental health reasons.

But if we are seizing this particular pandemic moment and attempting to “live with it”, rather than falling back on restrictions, let us look to the longer term on a few fronts. Proper ventilation in places like classrooms is an absolute necessity, and it is not enough for school principals to be given vague enough instructions about buying them if necessary. 

What is the Government’s actual plan here? What will happen with regard to the price and availability of the more effective and more expensive higher-grade face masks, proven to lower the risk of transmission?

But in the midst of this new phase, for the sake of our collective sanity in the long term, we must keep in mind the life lesson that what’s a correct Covid approach one week can look like utter foolishness by the end of a month. After all, the rapid ascent of the Omicron variant, at a time when we thought we might have Delta licked, shows that while we plan, Covid laughs.

It was sobering, for instance, to read some of the thoughts of Jeffrey Shaman of the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, a renowned authority in infectious disease modelling. 

He said that, after four or five months, we could see descendants of Delta or Omicron re-establish themselves when people’s immunity wanes, or we could see an entirely new variant emerge. 

We might need another booster this year, possibly even two. There’s also a chance we won’t see a significant new variant for much longer. There may be a limit to how much the virus can change and radically evade immunity.

A new variant wouldn’t necessarily be milder, he added, while World Health Organization special envoy David Nabarro told Newstalk that the world is in for a bumpy ride in the coming months, and he expected to see surges in different places every few months from Omicron or further variants of it “until, yes, everybody has had it”.

The WHO is going to encourage people to try to reduce transmission through face masks, distancing, and other methods; and for those who have got positive tests and are symptomatic to isolate.

“It will be a rough time, but I think we will get through it, and hopefully we will see a much better life for everybody in 2023,” said Nabarro.

I won’t lie, I did gulp when he said 2023.

But if it meant trying to “live with it” in 2022, taking the mini-breaks abroad and stuff when you can, and being relatively free of the awful yolk of a thing by next year, you’d grab hold of that. I’m holding on to that thought for this week anyway.

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