Should Australians be resigned to getting Omicron? Absolutely not
Lying with a cloth over her face, “unable to even look at things” in the worst sinus pain of her life, Johanna Roberts knew she was a “lucky” Covid-19 patient. “I could manage it by myself, I didn’t have to go to hospital.”
Despite being as cautious as possible in the run-up to Christmas, Roberts, who lives in Sydney, tested positive for the virus in mid-December. She still does not know if it was the Delta or Omicron variant.
With hindsight, there is just one small silver-lining to her experience. She got sick before “everything completely went to hell”.
“I had all the help I needed,” she says. “And I worry that people who have it now don’t have that. It’s just so extreme.”
As Australia’s confirmed Covid-19 cases climb to dizzying new highs, with real numbers likely far higher, it can be difficult to ward-off a sense of fatalism. A feeling that, as New South Wales health minister, Brad Hazzard, said on Boxing Day, “we’re all going to get Omicron”.
But health experts implore public vigilance, rather than defeatism. Federal vice-president of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Chris Moy, says: “When Hazzard went out and said we’re all going to catch it, I thought that was one of the most irresponsible statements ever.” He says it felt almost like an invitation, “because it did not have the caveat about what you should be trying to do.”
“The idea is to slow this down as much as possible so we don’t all get sick at the same time.”
Dr Alexandra Martiniuk, an epidemiologist at the George Institute for global health and the University of Sydney says that while Omicron is “unbelievably infectious”, that “doesn’t mean everyone has to get it, and it doesn’t mean everyone has to get it right now”.
How risky is Omicron if you’re vaccinated?
Prof Robert Booy, an infectious diseases paediatrician at the University of Sydney, says that taking a lackadaisical attitude toward Omicron is a dangerous gamble, even for the young and vaccinated. “Even if the majority of people will get Covid mildly and recover quickly, there remains an important minority who despite being relatively healthy will still get Covid severely, with hospitalisation and admission to intensive care.”
While vaccinations work well for most people, most of the time, their protection against the virus is not flawless, and will not be the same for everyone, Booy says. There is no way of knowing which “healthy young person” will be “the unlucky one who will get Covid severely.”
“This is a virus that’s still worse than influenza, it’s still more likely to kill you than influenza.”
Right now, Booy says we are dealing with the fallout from “a whole month of dangerous behaviour, 30 days of Christmas and New Year’s Eve parties which have been super-spreader events.”
He adds that in NSW, the pressure high case numbers have placed on the healthcare system makes this “a bad time to get sick”.
What precautions should you be taking?
The most important thing you can do is ensure all eligible members of your household are vaccinated. Booy says “Omicron … in kids or young adults is really worth preventing” and that the “benefit of vaccination is much greater than any side effects”.
For adults “there’s a palpable and important difference” between being vaccinated and having a booster shot, so if you are eligible for a booster, get one. Booy says Omicron is “extremely unlikely to be devastating if you’re boosted. Only are you at great risk if you’re immunosuppressed and not able to respond to vaccine.”
“A booster gives you great protection not only against severe disease but even against mild infection.”
Beyond vaccination, Booy says: “We don’t have to be in lockdown but we have to be careful. You go to fewer events, you make sure they’re outside, ventilated, short in duration and few in number.”
Martiniuk says that “we need to get ourselves back to the basics of infectious disease control”. While shoring up public health infrastructure like contact tracing and testing will make the biggest impact, on an individual level, she suggests people in areas with high case numbers limit the amount of time they spend in indoor venues, including grocery shopping, and try to reduce the number of people they see.
She also suggests you “put a few days in between social gatherings” because “Omicron infects quite quickly.” Taking a beat between seeing people gives you time to “fall sick in between”, thus lowering the risk of spreading the disease to others before you know you have it.
Can you relax if you’ve had a booster shot?
The short answer is no. “Even if you’ve had a booster, it’s about protecting other people,” says Moy. “We’ve all got to be in it together and not overcomplicate things.”
“We need good, clear, simple instructions. Don’t overthink it, whether you’ve had it or had a booster, just practice good, common sense Covid-safe practices that we’ve known all along.”
Booy agrees, saying that while those who have good Covid-19 immunity are a lower risk for transmitting the virus, a lower risk does not mean no-risk. “Your behaviour is not only about yourself, it’s about your community,” he says.
What about if you’ve already had Covid?
Moy and Martiniuk say that there is not yet conclusive data on how much protection a previous Covid-19 infection, Omicron or otherwise, offers, against future Omicron infections, or other variants.
However, Martiniuk says that it is “very clear” from “many people around the world that getting Covid-19 once does not prevent you from getting it again”.
Booy says that “there’s no doubt that if you’ve recovered from Covid, on the back of being double vaccinated, you will have longer and stronger immunity”. But he says the risks associated with the illness far outweigh any potential benefits, saying “it would be crazy to have Covid parties”.
Roberts, who is double vaccinated, recovered from Covid-19 and was permitted to leave isolation just in time to see her family for Christmas. She says that having already been infected makes her slightly “less stressed” as she awaits her eligibility for a booster shot. But some small peace of mind is negligible compared to the “awful” experience of her mild case. “I would choose to not have it if at all possible,” she says. “I don’t recommend it as a holiday experience.”