LONSBERRY: Don't Blow Off Omicron

Omicron is something you should pay attention to.

               Not with fear or anxiety, but with prudence and intelligence.

               In a world where public health officials, politicians and the press have failed in their responsibility to honestly inform you about the covid pandemic, you must take responsibility for knowing and doing what is best for the health of yourself and your family.

               And that is just as it should be. Free people are responsible people, making choices and owning consequences.

               And omicron changes the game. It changes the dynamic of the disease, and calls on you to reassess what you’ve learned about living with covid over the last two years.

               In omicron, the virus has figured out how to work around your immunity to covid.

               It is a natural evolutionary process often called “vaccine escape,” or – in the case of influenza viruses – “antigen drift” or “antigen shift.” What it means is that the virus changes enough to make your immune system blind to it, freeing the virus to rage largely unchecked through your body.

               Initially, covid competed against itself, developing a variant that was easier and faster to transmit between humans – that’s how we got delta. But that only worked so long. With a growing number of humans having some degree of immunity – from having the disease or from being vaccinated – the pool of susceptible people was quickly shrinking. At that point, covid began competing against us, mutating to overcome our immune system – that’s how we got omicron.

               What that means to you is that your family’s personal immunity may mean very little. Whether you have had covid or been vaccinated, omicron can largely sidestep your body’s immune defenses.

               That almost resets the virus in our population. It becomes almost like it was when the virus was truly “novel,” meaning our collective immune systems had never been exposed to it.

               That means that you may need to rethink your use of some of the basic personal-protection measures which can be useful in staving off viral infection.

               Specifically: Masks, social distancing and participation in large gatherings of people in close proximity.

               Yes, those are the mantras of the officials who have failed in their leadership of our society through this pandemic. But what may be bad public mandate, can nonetheless be good personal choice.

               And though the virus may have taken our immune system out of the game, it hasn’t taken our brain. It can out mutate us, but we can out think it.

               It might be natural to ask if omicron is worth the effort. If covid is an overwhelmingly survivable disease, and omicron seems thus far to be even less virulent than pre-existing covid strains, why worry about it?

               The answer is: Because you can’t predict the future, especially when you’re talking about viruses.

               Sometimes – as in the flu epidemic of 1918 – a disease will go through something called “serial passage” or “viral passaging” in which, as it is transmitted from one infected individual to another, it becomes increasingly more virulent. The virus “learns” how to kill better, and it gets very good at it. In 1918, the first cases, for months, were so mild as to be almost unrecognizable as influenza. By the end, from the same disease, many people were dying horrific deaths the same day they became infected.

               Now, it’s true that typically a successful virus will ultimately grow less virulent. Ultimately, it will be in its best interest not to kill its hosts. It is quite likely that covid will do that, ultimately becoming even milder and fading into the woodwork of diseases we are subject to. The problem is, we don’t know when “ultimately” is. Hopefully it’s now. But it might not be. A genetically flexible virus is always a potentially serious threat that can kill people by the untold millions.

               That’s not meant to be a boogey man story or a sky-is-falling tale, it is just an illustration of a viral possibility which has manifest itself in many human epidemics and pandemics.

               That’s why, traditionally, public health officials haven’t screwed around with viruses. That’s also why, traditionally, epidemics have been so horribly devastating.

               Which gets us back to omicron.

               The virus has demonstrated its genetic flexibility and unpredictability. It has proven it can pull a rabbit out of its hat. And we have proven that, thus far, we don’t have a vaccine or a treatment that will stop it in its tracks.

               And now the immunity you and your family probably have is of far diminished benefit.

               Which gets us back to masks, social distancing and participation in large gatherings of people in close proximity.

               Those things, taken together, help. None is perfect, all have weaknesses, but they may be the best you can do.

               And you should consider them as your family goes forward over the holidays and these next weeks of the rise of omicron. The virus has developed a new offensive wrinkle, and you need to rethink and redouble your defensive posture.

               Not in fear, not in anxiety, not like some lemming. But as a free and responsible person whose job it is to keep yourself and your family safe.

               This isn’t about politics, or making a stand. It doesn’t matter who has mandated what or what they are spouting on TV.

               It is about you and your family, and the choices you make.

               Choices which, because of this new variant, might need to be different than those the last year has accustomed us to make.

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