The Omicron variant has been variously touted by pundits and experts alike as a possible key out of the pandemic and into an endemic stage of COVID, and talk of being able to "live with COVID like the flu" is everywhere right now.
But after two years of being pummeled with hospitalization counts and mortality statistics, it can be hard to fully digest the reality of what's happening nationwide during this so-called "milder" wave of COVID. And the reality is still a September 11th worth of deaths every two days — with some days seeing upwards of 2,000 dead. Yes, these are largely unvaccinated and/or elderly people, but the rate of continued death, with the national toll likely to top 860,000 this week, is still sobering.
Everyone, therefore, who wants to equate COVID with the flu is still stretching the facts. In 2021 alone, as Bay Area News Group notes, COVID killed eight times as many Americans as influenza did in the 2017-18 season, which was considered the worst flu season in a decade. And the Omicron variant, while less deadly, is still making many people very sick — and in one week alone this month, Omicron killed three times as many people as died in the worst week of the 2017-18 flu season.
Until we get to the endemic stage, when the vast majority of Americans have some form of immunity to COVID and deaths drop off a cliff, so to speak, we are still looking at pandemic levels of death and the accruing sadness for the families of the dead. And even at the endemic stage, we still may be living with a virus that is far more deadly than the flu, full stop — and that's assuming an even more pernicious variant doesn't arise.
"We’ve learned to kind of accommodate and live with influenza,” says Warner Greene, a virologist at SF's Gladstone Institutes, speaking to Bay Area News Group. “Hopefully we can get there with COVID, but we’re not there yet.”
Here in the Bay Area, deaths from COVID have, largely, dropped off a cliff, likely thanks to high rates of vaccination and boosters — despite still extremely high rates of Omicron transmission. After the holiday weekend on Tuesday, for instance, Bay Area counties recorded over 45,000 new cases of COVID, but zero new deaths.
Marin County Health Officer Dr. Matt Willis spoke to SFGate this week and sounded some notes of optimism. He cited far fewer cases of extreme respiratory distress among those hospitalized with COVID, and patients leaving the hospital after relatively severe cases are doing so with less need for supplemental oxygen than with previous variants. And Willis notes that wastewater testing for virus prevalence — now thought by public health experts to be a better indicator than case counts — shows that a plateau has already begun around the Bay Area.
The next stage will be, Willis says, largely psychological.
"One of primary challenges now is shifting our mindset," Willis tells SFGate. "Our mental models and policies are based on a virus that was one thing in the past, and is something different now. It makes sense for our response to the virus to also change, but our experience of collective trauma over the past two years doesn't get forgotten overnight."
Some experts have cautioned that there is nothing preventing COVID from evolving yet another, much more terrible variant that both makes people sicker and evades all vaccines, but Willis calls this doomsday scenario "Very unlikely."
"The smartest viruses like colds have learned to coexist peacefully with the human population because they don't make you so sick that you can't move about the community and infect others," Willis says. "So that's a powerful driver of evolution, and Omicron is the perfect example of this. Omicron is showing how successful it is at copying itself across the population by not making people very ill and being extremely contagious."
Still, the caveat here is that is all based on probability, Willis says, and everyone agrees it's still too soon to say anything with certainty.
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