COVID-19’s highly infectious Omicron variant is infecting more than 31,000 Illinoisans every day. Vaccines and boosters have proven highly effective at keeping people out of the state’s inundated hospitals, but more and more breakthrough cases are being reported.
With a positive test feeling all but inevitable to many residents, why not let your guard down and get a supposedly mild infection out of the way?
Because you’d be putting the state’s most vulnerable residents at risk during a crucial moment of the pandemic — and Omicron can still pack a brutal punch, says Cook County Health expert Dr. Mark Loafman.
As Illinois public health officials on Thursday reported yet another record-high of 7,380 hospitalized COVID patients and the second-worst daily death toll in a year at 142, Loafman urged residents not to buy into the ill-founded sentiment that they might be better off getting themselves infected to boost their natural immunity.
“This sense of inevitability that many people have, this sense of reassurance that they know people who have come down with the virus and ended up OK, it’s understandable, but it’s a false sense of security,” said Loafman, a community medicine specialist. “I’m signing death certificates routinely. It’s still a big deal.”
Here’s a look at some of the myths surrounding the most contagious variant yet — and why it’s so important to dispel them as Illinois’ health care system is stretched thinner than ever before:
Myth: Omicron causes milder infections, so I might as well get it now.
Early research suggests that Omicron generally doesn’t cause as severe sickness as Delta or some other previous variants, “but it’s a numbers game,” Loafman warned — and those numbers are still skyrocketing.
The state reported 37,048 new cases of the disease Thursday, more than double the high water marks of previous surges, and officials say it’s too soon to say whether we’ve reached a peak.
“There is always some ratio of people who get severely sick. Even if the ratio is smaller, the number of people ending up in the hospital is huge because of the volume of cases,” Loafman said.
As a result, “we’re close to overwhelmed,” he said. Nearly 1,200 COVID patients were in intensive care units statewide as of Wednesday night, which is approaching records set in previous surges. The vast majority of new admissions are unvaccinated people, officials have said.
“You may be lucky and not have a severe case, and the odds of that are good if you’re young, healthy and vaccinated. But we see lots of people, mostly unvaccinated, who are sick for three to four weeks in the hospital, followed by the unknowns of long COVID, which is still being studied. It’s not safe,” Loafman said.
Myth: Omicron is like chicken pox — better to get it now so I’m immune.
This outdated strategy — long known to be medically negligent since the highly effective chicken pox vaccine was introduced — would cause far more harm than good, especially because COVID-19 is mutating at such a rapid pace.
Natural immunity in a person who has recovered from COVID has been shown to last for only a few months, a fact attested by some of Loafman’s patients and colleagues who have been infected three times since the pandemic hit.
Intentionally spreading a disease that’s already running rampant would pose an even greater threat to the immunocompromised and older people who are more susceptible to serious disease.
“The way this virus is mutating and new variants are emerging, we’d be back to square one quickly. It’s a cavalier, throw-in-the-towel approach that’s not warranted and not helpful. It’s flat out harmful,” Loafman said.
Myth: Omicron will help us reach herd immunity.
Until more people are vaccinated worldwide — including Illinois, where 21.7% of eligible residents still haven’t gotten a shot — herd immunity is a pipe dream, experts say.
That’s because the virus is mutating rapidly as it regenerates billions of times around the globe, sometimes resulting in more transmissible variants like Omicron. On top of that, natural immunity is short-lived.
“Those are the two things that blew it,” Loafman said of the prospect of herd immunity. “Measles, chicken pox, polio — those are very stable viruses, one and done, you get your shot, you’ve got immunity, that’s it.
“COVID doesn’t work that way. It will mutate, and immunity will fade, and we will go through surge after surge after surge until we get more people vaccinated. That’s the only way out,” he said.
Myth: I’m vaccinated and boosted, so I don’t have to worry about this as much.
It’s just as critical as ever for people to follow the basic pandemic precautions — most importantly, to get vaccinated and boosted — to keep the state’s hospitals from being completely overrun.
Even for boosted residents with so-called “super-immunity” after a breakthrough case, that extra layer of immunity will only last for a few months. Masking and social distancing are still vital.
“You’ll probably do fine [if you get a breakthrough case], but you’re gonna take some people with you and contribute to the spread. Not as much, but still some,” Loafman said.
His words were harsher for residents who have opted against rolling up a sleeve.
“If you’re not vaccinated, and cavalier about it, this is on you. You’re going to take other people down with you,” he said. “It’s just wrong.”